Report fails to get to grips with online publishing

Fri, Nov 30, 2012, 00:00

ANALYSIS:Leveson’s vision for press reform is unlikely to be the last word on the subject

This is the seventh time in 70 years the British government has commissioned a report dealing with concerns about the press – and it seems unlikely that the seventh time will be the charm.

This is 2012. The “press” is no longer a street-specific industry characterised by trilby hats and smoke-filled rooms.

Inky fingers have been replaced by scrollers’ thumbs. Inside the 2,000-page Leveson report, there’s a section on the interdependency between the press and the kind of media that didn’t trouble those earlier inquisitions – Popbitch, Guido Fawkes, Huffington Post UK. The lines have blurred.

Lord Justice Leveson, aka Sir Brian, says any new system of regulation “should not be considered sufficiently effective if it does not cover all significant news publishers”. It’s a line that appears to ignore the fact that online-only publications are or can be “significant news publishers” too.

He also observes “the very nature of the internet does not lend itself to regulation”, which reads oddly given his critics claim the very nature of a free press does not lend itself to regulation either. At the same time, online publications should be taken into account when it comes to measuring the media market in merger decisions, he recommends, while another section devoted to press regulators in Ireland and elsewhere details their embrace of online-only members.

Unregulated pride

Yet Leveson does not comprehensively deal with the argument that the very existence of the internet, in its mostly unregulated pride, fatally undermines his vision. The spectre of what is known as “the Desmond problem” – referring to Richard Desmond’s decision to remove his papers from the Press Complaints Commission – has also not gone away. What if some titles simply refuse to sign up to a new regulator, or quit when it makes a ruling?

How can victims who cannot afford to pursue costly court cases get any redress from either these titles or much-read but unregulated online media?

Ultimately, “because the internet is doing it” cannot be a sensible excuse for publishing defamatory whispers or privacy-invading photographs. If it is, there will be no way that either “legacy” press brands or online-only publications that crave respect can differentiate themselves from the noise. A free press, Nick Clegg declared yesterday, “does not mean a press that is free to bully innocent people”.

All along, Leveson has insisted that he doesn’t need a lecture on free speech. Those who have already sniffed at his call for statutory underpinning of an independent regulator clearly feel otherwise.

New law

David Cameron waited only 90 minutes to dismiss his call for a new law. But if Leveson has failed to uphold the principle of a free press, it’s not just for the reasons Cameron cited. It’s because he also concluded there was no “compelling evidence” for a cap on media market ownership.

Even a press that continues “marking its own homework” is hardly a pure manifestation of free speech if it’s controlled by a cosy lounge of extremely rich men. Everything has changed in 70 years – and yet, so too has nothing much.

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