“People will not assume that what they read on the Internet is trustworthy or that it carries any particular assurance or accuracy; it need be no more than one person’s view.”
After that quote from The Leveson Inquiry report, released Nov. 29, was read to John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, on the BBC TV news magazine show Newsnight, he bent forward in laughter for several seconds and exclaimed: “Well that’s wonderful that he thinks that. I would say we should let him go on thinking that.”
Reporter Stephen Smith asked: “Is he right?”
“Well of course not,” Barlow said. “I mean, first of all, there’s practically every shade of human truth and nonsense to be had online. And I think most people who are familiar with that environment, which is practically everybody younger than the Lord [Justice], is familiar with how to determine the wheat from the chaff.”
Set up after the phone-hacking scandal erupted at the former News of the World in July 2011 that ultimately led to the paper being shut down, the almost 2,000-page report from The Leveson Inquiry into the “culture, practices and ethics of the press” condemns the press as having “wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people.”
The report calls for new independent regulation of “the press,” with a statutory underpinning. Leveson insisted it was not statutory regulation, merely law to ensure everyone signed up to the new body and that its powers would be recognized.
Victims of phone hacking and press intrusion who gave evidence, such as actor Hugh Grant, have insisted the report must be implemented in full. But Prime Minister David Cameron is opposed to legislation as well as changes to the Data Protection Act. Some are demanding action by Christmas.
Besides the opposition to the broad recommendations for regulation, the report has also come under criticism, and at times ridicule, for its approach to digital media and the Internet.
The 56-page summary of the report only mentions the word “blog” once. In the full report, the only detailed section on online media is titled “The Relevance of the Internet.”
In the second paragraph of this section (page 736), he declares: “The Internet does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones. Some have called it a ‘wild west’ but I would prefer to use the term ‘ethical vacuum.’ This is not to say for one moment that everything on the Internet is therefore unethical. That would be a gross mischaracterization of the work of very many bloggers and websites which should rightly and fairly be characterized as valuable and professional. The point I am making is a more modest one, namely that the Internet does not claim to operate by express ethical standards, so that bloggers and others may, if they choose, act with impunity.”
“The press, on the other hand, does claim to operate by and adhere to an ethical code of conduct,” he writes.
He continues by arguing that photographs being available online do not have the same “qualitative” effect as being “blazoned” on the front page of a tabloid newspaper.
“Thus, the fact of publication inflates the apparent newsworthiness of the photographs by placing them more firmly within the public domain and at the top of the news agenda,” he states.
His concluding paragraph of the five on the Internet out of 1,987 pages argues that this is not a debate about free speech.
“To turn this into a debate about free speech both misses the point and is in danger of creating the sort of moral relativism which has already been remarked on. This is, or at least should be, a debate about freedom with responsibility, and about an ethical press not doing something which it is technically quite able to do but decides not to do. This freedom (and where the editors choose to draw the line whether rightly or otherwise) was neatly encapsulated by the decisions taken in relation to Prince Harry and the Duchess of Cambridge.”
In particular with the example of Prince Harry’s naked pictures being viewed around the globe thanks to TMZ, Lord Justice Leveson argued that The Sun should not have printed the pictures. The paper said at the time that because they were online and printed in Irish papers and others, it was justified in running them.
Blogs and definitions
Other parts of the report recounted evidence from websites such as the Guido Fawkes’ blog based in Ireland and Huffington Post UK, which has signed up to the Press Complaints Commission, the current print press self-regulation body.
Carla Buzasi, editor in chief of Huffington Post UK, said that “micro bloggers and small non-commercial bloggers should exist outside any formal system of regulation” and that “freedom from regulation as a necessary condition for the nurture of creative talent and encouragement of new media enterprises, particularly if there are substantive costs associated with that system,” said the report.
Lord Justice Leveson overall is largely dismissive of blogs: “They are also, with the regulatory exceptions set out above, entirely unregulated, though subject to civil and criminal law in appropriate jurisdictions. However, it is noteworthy that although the blogs cited here are read by very large numbers of people, it should not detract from the fact that most blogs are read by very few people. Indeed, most blogs are rarely read as news or factual, but as opinion and must be considered as such.”
The report addresses the 1998 Data Protection Act and calls for tougher sentences for some breaches. But concerns have been raised about the removal of certain existing journalist protections under the Act. The suggestions would tighten the current cases where journalists could use data (see pages 1,111 and 1,112).
In the Guardian’s summary of the section, the changes could be read as “witnesses interviewed by journalists might effectively be required, in sensitive investigations, to sign a written agreement with those whose interviews they rely upon.”
Prime Minister Cameron has already warned parliament he has serious concerns about these changes.
The report is both broad in using terms such as “the press” and “newspapers” when almost the entire illegal and unethical problems highlighted were limited to national newspapers, and even then, mostly tabloid. It also uses the word “privacy” without seemingly defining the limits of that privacy when related to social media.
Emily Bell, instrumental in making the Guardian the digital powerhouse it is today before becoming director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, dismissed the inquiry as “irrelevant to 21st century journalism” the day before the report was published, repeating similar points the next night on Newsnight.
She concludes: “What is the solution? To put ‘the Internet’ within the scope of Leveson would be as daft as it would be futile, and to regulate the press further, without having a broader definition of who ‘the press’ might be, is a recipe for irrelevance.”
Britain’s biggest papers are suggesting a new system be in place within six months, though some have argued new legislation might only kick in by 2016. By then, the British “press” may be completely different to what it is today, let alone the past 30 years of journalism “culture and practice” outlined in 2,000 pages by Lord Justice Leveson.
Tristan Stewart-Robertson is a Canadian freelance reporter based in Glasgow, Scotland, operating as the W5 Press Agency.