There’s been a lot of anger around about the new regulatory system for the press, even before the details have really been sorted out. Some in the press are calling it the end of freedom of speech. Many are angry and worried about the impact on bloggers and tweeters. Quite a few magazines and newspapers are already saying they won’t join the new regulator, even before the form of that new regulator has been announced. Some are saying that the ‘exemplary damages’ system that accompanies the Royal Charter may breach human rights – and may be challenged in the European Court on that basis.
Some of this anger may be well placed – and some of the challenges may have validity. The situation for bloggers is far from clear, and every attempt that is made to clarify it seems to make it muddier – the latest being an exemption for ‘small blogs’, without a definition of what a ‘small’ blog is. Is this blog of mine small, for example? Would it be determined by number of hits? By average hits? By number of unique visitors? All of those figures can be misleading. I still remain unconvinced that even if bloggers are covered by this law that there is really much to worry about from it. We have much bigger concerns, such as the use of public order and other speech laws (as I’ve blogged about before) but I can understand why people are concerned and agree that we need clarity and properly written law, making the situation clear and giving appropriate protection for bloggers and tweeters.
What I am clear about, however, is that many people are trying to lay the blame for all of these problems (and directing their anger) at the wrong targets.
Leveson isn’t really to blame. It seems clear that he doesn’t understand the internet very well (particularly given what scant attention he gave it in his report) and he does seem to have somewhat authoritarian tendencies where the internet is concerned, as his first speech after his report suggested. However, he was just doing his job – and in the most part doing it pretty well.
Much though it goes against the grain to say it, the politicians aren’t really to blame either: they’re just doing what politicians do. They’re following what they perceive to be public opinion, and acting in the usual way. For even David Cameron to end up backing this kind of solution, given his connections with certain elements of the press, the political pressure must have been pretty strong, and not just from the opposition and the Lib Dems. Yes, they could have drafted their proposals better, and yes they could have been more carefully thought through, and given more time rather than being hastily agreed at 2.30 am in Ed Miliband’s offices, but that’s still not the fundamental problem.
Of course they all had their parts to play, and they all should take some of the blame – but not that much. The lion’s share of the blame lies with one group, and one group alone: the press themselves. None of this would have happened if the press had not behaved abysmally – and what has happened would have been much less oppressive if some of the key elements press had shown at least some sign of humility. Instead, what we’ve seen these last few days has reminded most people of exactly why the press need regulation – and why there’s such an appetite for press regulation. The death of Lucy Meadows, so viciously monstered by Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail, and the hideous way that they reported her death, maintaining their transphobia even as they reported her death, was the most horrendous example, but it was not unique. They way that the Daily Mirror put a picture of actor Colin Baker, next to a story about a Dr Who sex scandal with which he had no connection was another awful example.
For those of us who study regulation it is a familiar cycle. When people or groups push the limits of bad behaviour, that’s when regulators swing into action. They often end up ‘over-regulating’, using sledgehammers to crack nuts, but if the nuts didn’t need cracking in the first place they wouldn’t do it. In my specialist field, that of internet privacy, it has happened again and again. The ‘right to be forgotten’, an idea that has caused consternation in some circles, would never have been brought into action if it hadn’t been for Facebook making it so difficult for people to delete their accounts. The ‘cookies directive’, the piece of legislation that brought about all those annoying warnings when you visit websites, would never have happened if behavioural advertisers (and in particular Phorm) hadn’t invaded our privacy again and again and again.
In all these cases, the ‘offenders’ were asked nicely to change their ways – and didn’t. All they did was metaphorically laugh in the face of the potential regulators, assuming they were out of reach, or untouchable. Regulators react to that kind of thing – and there are repercussions. Often those repercussions fall upon innocent bystanders – such is the case now with the responsible press, and many bloggers, potentially suffering as a result of the overreach of the regulators.
So yes, you can blame the regulators if you want – but don’t forget why all this came about, and remember who’s really to blame. Not Lord Justice Leveson. Not Ed Miliband. Not even David Cameron. In the end, it is the press that have brought this upon us all.