Digital journalism's inclusion in the new press regulation system came out of nowhere.
No-one paid any serious attention to websites during the Leveson inquiry and the judge himself spent precious little time discussing them in his report. For online writers, the proceedings were akin to watching an incontinent uncle marvel at a VHS tape. But when the royal charter on a new press regulator was published yesterday it included a reference to "relevant publishers" – a term which included "a website containing news-related material [including comment]" as well as newspapers or magazines.
Twitter proceeded to lose its cool, but the references to "relevant publishers" seemed to be exclusively about who could work as staff or on the appointments committee of the new regulator.
The story didn't end there though. Shortly afterwards, the amendment to the crime and courts bill was published. This second "dab" of legislation forces publishers to face exemplary damages if they are taken to court outside of the regulation system – it's the stick to get them inside the tent. Here, websites were clearly part of the system.
If there was any doubt that news-related material "subject to editorial control" included items posted online, then the exclusion of editors who did not post the material – for example Google News (probably) or Yahoo's comment section (probably) - suggested everything else is included. That potentially brings news sites, blogs and Twitter accounts under the definition.
Downing Street, as usual, had no idea what was going on. They still don't. No 10 is like the Mona Lisa – pretty from afar, more of a mess the closer you look at it.
Those of us who were broadly sympathetic to where Leveson was coming from – or at least who did not consider it the resurrection of Mussolini – have been accused of something akin to hypocrisy for being irritated at the way digital journalism has been suddenly enveloped by the regulatory system, but there are big, important distinctions.
1) There is no workable definition of a 'relevant publisher' online. Politics.co.uk is an obvious example of a website which would be included, because it publishes news and comment. It does not look so different to a newspaper, even if its attitudes are. The same would have to be said for sites like the Huffington Post and, potentially, Guido Fawkes. But what happens when we start looking at Wordpress sites - small blogs set up by student to give their view on current affairs? And if it includes those blogs, why not Twitter? Downing Street tried to define the difference using staff numbers yesterday, with media secretary Maria Miller saying only sites with a "range of authors" would count. That won't wash. Setting the bar at more than one member of staff is completely arbitrary. She seems unaware of how many blogs are run by collectives of writers. Her comments are also blind to the fluid, informal realities of day-to-day, shoestring-budget web journalism.
2) The inclusion of blogs in the regulatory system partially vindicates critics' hyperbole about the threats to a free press. It is the point at which the new system crosses a line and becomes something akin to a state register of journalists. The reason is simple: It takes no money to set up a blog. Including them in regulation means every new team of bloggers would need to stump up fees for watchdog membership or face having to pay for a court case even if they win. It would prohibit a new form of free speech, act as an obstacle to the future of journalism and become a de-facto register of journalists. Newspapers, on the other hand, require extraordinary sums of money. By the time you are in the business of publishing newspapers you are capable of acting as a rational economic actor and deciding whether to pay regulator fees or take your chances with exemplary damages. It does not have the same freezing effect at that level of spending and revenue.
3) Digital journalism was never discussed during Leveson. Web journalists were barely invited and the way the business operates was broadly ignored. It did not take into account the pressures facing digital publishers or the direction that type of journalism was going. In so far as anything about web journalism was discussed, it was through the role of Guido Fawkes and his team who, while arguably the most important digital players, are not particularly representative of online journalism. Leveson's report contained barely a sentence on digital journalism. Why was digital journalism not discussed? Because it had nothing to do with phone-hacking. To suddenly come out of the woodwork with plans to include it in a regulator system is disingenuous at best and downright scandalous at worst. This was about a press regulator. The clue's in the title. Worst of all, there is no reason for online outlets to join. Most operate on such a low budget that any lost libel case will sink them. It would make precious little difference if it's one where costs are partially reduced by being involved in the regulator. Deciding to join would be like choosing which gun to be shot with.
4) The future of journalism should not be decided in a chaotic fashion late at night. No good deal has ever been concluded in someone's office at 02:30 in the morning. The accounts of Sunday evening, with Oliver Letwin making regular phone calls to his boss, who may or may not have been awake, and Hacked Off sitting around a table devoid of representatives of the media industry, are not palatable. The fact Downing Street evidently has no idea whether digital publishers are included is proof positive that the role of websites has been barely considered.
Web journalism is the future of all journalism. Print is facing an existential crisis. Only the most sentimental reader believes people will still be reading newspapers in 30 years' time. And yet we have not found a financial model which works across sites. The Times' paywall experiment has been a failure and the Guardian's reliance on advertising revenue has not proved any more reassuring. Throwing barely-understood regulations at this embryonic but seminal industry, complete with associated costs, is abysmal and irresponsible.
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