Guest blogs: could we all fall foul of new press regulation rules?
Following a deal struck by the three main political parties in the early hours of Monday morning, the government has committed to creating an independent press regulator, set up by Royal Charter.
Today's guest blogs look at the possibility that the Royal Charter might affect not only newspapers, but virtually anyone who writes on the internet.
First, Padraig Reidy of Index On Censorship outlines what we know so far about the new regulator - but warns that we should worry more about what we don't know. Further down, Mumsnet Blogger Glosswitch considers whether she, and any other writer who posts publically, will be expected to play by the same rules as professional journalists. Read their blogs, and let us know what you think on the Talk thread.
Padraig Reidy, on the potential dangers lurking in the Royal Charter
We've all agreed to things we might later regret at 2.30 in the morning. But rarely will a decision made long after proper bedtime have potential repurcussions for as many people as that made in Ed Miliband's office on Monday.
There, in agreeing the Royal Charter (and other laws) formulated to set up a new press regulator, the assembled politicians and members of campaign group Hacked Off potentially put web users at risk of "exemplary damages" for not being part of a regulator.
The whole thing's a rushed, confusing mess - but here, essentially, is the problem. The Royal Charter, in defining who can be part of the body overseeing the regulator specifies that no one who works for a "relevant publisher" is allowed. This is supposed to avoid newspaper industry interference.
Later, it defined "relevant publishers" as "a newspaper or magazine containing news-related material", or "a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a newspaper or magazine)". It goes on to define "news-related material" as:
- news or information about current affairs
- opinion about matters relating to the news or current affairs
- gossip about celebrities, other public figures or other persons in the news.
The problem is this: I, you and everyone we know publish news and gossip on the web. So if the regulator thinks we're not eligible to sit on the regulating body because of a clash of interest, then does that mean that we would be subject to the regulator? It seems so.
I don't really think the people who put the Royal Charter together had Mumsnet in mind when they drafted it. But the lack of clarity here is really quite disturbing. When Downing Street was contacted to ask if Twitter would be a "relevant publisher", the response was, "We don't know".
Individual message board users will, most likely, be safe. Or at least as safe as you can be under this country's already draconian libel law. But what about Mumsnet and other sites?
Culture secretary Maria Miller has said that a "relevant publisher" "would have to meet the three tests of whether the publication is publishing news-related material in the course of a business, whether their material is written by a range of authors – this would exclude a one-man band or a single blogger – and whether that material is subject to editorial control."
That, to me, sounds a lot like Mumsnet. And not just Mumsnet. Are group blogs affected? Does making money from Google Ads on your blog count as a business? None of these questions seem to have been addressed. This is a breathtakingly wide piece of legislation that seems not to have taken into account how many people publish, receive and share stories nowadays.
Should Mumsnet and other sites and blogs who never hacked anyone's phone, never bribed a policeman, never took a long-lens beach photo, be coerced into a regulator by the threat of exemplary damages if it does not join?
Padraig Reidy is Index On Censorship's News Editor, and writes regularly on free expression issues including digital and press freedome, on Index's free speech blog. Follow him on Twitter @mePadraigReidy.
Glosswitch: "I'm uncertain about the detail – and that's the point, I guess"
I started blogging in March last year. By the end of the month my site had had 26 hits. Looking back, half of them were probably me, "just checking" on my posts, but at the time I felt like I was famous. There were real, live people! Reading stuff I'd written! It felt so exciting – but also a little unsettling. I couldn't help feeling ever so slightly exposed. What if the blog persona I'd created was a total prat? How would I know? And how could I trust myself not to be giving away far too much? One year on I still don't know the answers - but I've carried on regardless, making and adapting my own rules as I go along.
It's been a learning process. Before I blogged, the most I'd had published was an academic study of the German Romantics, all of whom are, rather conveniently, dead. Ludwig Tieck might be turning in his grave over the things I've claimed, but there's nothing he can do about it (although to be fair, I probably have an inflated idea of my own importance in the afterlives of long-dead Germans).
With living people, though, it's different. I've had such luminaries as Louise Mensch and, um, former X-Factor winner Steve Brookstein respond to less-than-positive things I've written about them. It's a strange feeling, discovering that you're not just spouting forth to your followers and that actually, the person you're taking to pieces is watching, too. It can make you feel guilty. It can teach you a degree of self-censorship and restraint. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. You might feel like an amateur but you still have the power to cause hurt and to portray others in an unfair light (take for example those posts I wrote about my in-laws and then deleted…).
Blogging is public, certainly – but often to me it feels less like formal publishing and more like a conversation I'm having with more people than usual (and no one, thus far, would censor that). But is that a reasonable assessment? Or should bloggers be expected to play by the same rules as trained journalists, at least when they're writing for a "relevant publisher"? Is it their responsibility to know the difference between "relevant publishers" and, um, "irrelevant" ones?
The potential uncertainty over what constitutes a "relevant publisher" worries me, to say the least. I don't know if there's a moral difference between a blogger or forum contributor making unfounded assertions and a professional journalist in a leading news outlet doing the same, but there is a difference in terms of the power that these people hold and the contexts in which they're using it. As a blogger I don't wish to compromise myself or other people but I know I make mistakes. I try to respond (mostly) when I'm pulled up. Is it fair to ask for more than this?
One of the things that has bothered me about the Leveson enquiry – and which has left me unsure which "side" I'm on – is that so much of it has looked like self-important celebrity types pitched against self-important media types, all battling over how much we, the little people, should know (that said, I can live with the idea of Charlotte Church as a campaigner – it's at Hugh Grant I draw the line). And then I'm left feeling that maybe the threat of "exemplary damages" is greatest for those who merit it least, for the less influential and easier targets. The ones who don't hack the phones of missing schoolgirls but who write something that annoys an Important Person for a publication which is suddenly, unexpectedly, deemed to be "relevant". And I may be wrong on this, but I've a feeling that we amateurs generally don't need this intervention quite so much because we've less of an investment in pushing the boundaries in the first place. Or am I just being naïve?
Before I got distracted by German literature, I did get one other thing published in the national press. For anyone old enough to remember Number One magazine (the poor man's Smash Hits, assuming you remember Smash Hits) I once won a £10 record token for having a parody of a Kylie Minogue song in the Silly Song Corner. It was a libellous parody, too, as it mentioned that old "joke" about Kylie's voice actually being Rick Astley slowed down (look, it was vaguely funny in 1988, a year when we also had Glen Medeiros – we took whatever pleasures we could find). I wonder now, in the age of twitter and blogging, whether it would be wise to do something like that. Would that have left me with "exemplary damages" (and only a Pet Shop Boys, Actually cassette to pay them off with)? It doesn't bear thinking about.