Times Online's audience has increased from 1.5 million to 8 million unique users in just 18 months, according to online editorial director Peter Bale.

Speaking at the Blogging4Business conference yesterday in London, Mr Bale said that a quarter of Times Online's content is now commissioned specifically for the website and that comment and opinion is what differentiates Times content from rival news sites.

"You’ve got to get searing comment that gets people thinking, even if they hate it," reported the Blogging4Business blog.

He said that the Times had put blogging "at the heart of its editorial operation" but that it meant ceding some control so that an open dialogue can develop.

But he warned about the risk of damage to a brand. He said he admired the Guardian's new group blog Comment is free but speculated that some user-generated content might cause problems.

"I'm sure that Comment is free is going to lead to some very interesting case law that will be of great use to us all," he told the conference.

"It will be a matter of moments that the Guardian has to do something similar to the Washington Post and pull down some comments."

WashingtonPost.com was heavily criticised by bloggers in January for blocking comments which, it said, were unnecessarily abusive.

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