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Archive for January 11th, 2012

Permission To Speak: Conservative Lord suggests that government “may end up regulating” the blogosphere

with 15 comments

Last month Liberal Conspiracy reported on plans by David Hunt, a Conservative Member of the House of Lords, and the new head of the Press Complaints Commission, to “invite political bloggers to volunteer for regulation by the PCC’s replacement”.

Hunt was also reported to have said that bloggers posed a “greater challenge” than the tabloid press, and that “At the moment, it is like the Wild West out there. We need to appoint a sheriff.”

In response, I wrote to David Hunt via http://www.writetothem.com with ten questions about his idea.

Here’s what I asked:

1. Despite the recent growth of the internet, many more people still read books than read blogs. Some of the things that are written in books are inaccurate and misleading. Thousands of new books are published in the UK each year. Yet other than the law of libel – which is equally applicable to blogs – there is currently no formal mechanism for challenging inaccuracies published in books. In order to be consistent, will the Press Complaints Commission therefore be seeking to “kitemark” books – or book publishers? If not, why single out blogs and blogging?

2. It has been suggested that you believe inaccurate reporting by bloggers to pose a “greater challenge” than inaccurate coverage by the tabloid press. Can you provide some specific examples of inaccurate reporting by bloggers that you believe might substantiate this claim?

3. In 2010 I reported the Daily Mail to the Press Complaints Commission over an article in which it made a series of false claims downplaying the health risks of white asbestos. [see http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2010/sep/27/asbestos-press-watchdog-pcc]. The newspaper eventually agreed to print a correction. Can you provide an example of a similarly toxic false health claim made by a blogger?

4. Can you provide an example of a blog whose reporting is consistently less accurate than, for example, that of the Daily Mail?

5. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to all organisations that publish a blog (eg. Cancer Research UK [http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/] or Topshop [http://insideout.topshop.com/]) or only to individual blogs that are deemed “political”?

6. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to political blogs published by Members of Parliament – for example Nadine Dorries MP [http://blog.dorries.org/] and Tom Watson MP? [http://www.tom-watson.co.uk/]

7. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to all blogs read in the UK (ie. including US-based blogs such as BoingBoing [http://boingboing.net], and the US edition of the Huffington Post [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/?country=US]) or only to blogs written by people living in the UK?

8. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to publicly visible postings and “groups” on Facebook, and to postings on microblogging sites such as Twitter?

9. Many political blogs are highly critical of the habits and standards of commercial newspapers, including the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Sun and Daily Telegraph. Given that the Press Complaints Commission would receive the bulk of its funding from such sources even under the alternative arrangements you are proposing, would this not create a serious conflict of interest, undermining the credibility of any attempt by the PCC to “regulate” political bloggers?

10. Many political blogs are highly critical of the Conservative Party and its donors, and of the wider political establishment in which the three main political parties operate. Given that both you and your predecessor are Conservative members of the House of Lords, does this not also create a serious conflict of interest, and undermine the perceived neutrality and objectivity of any PCC “kitemarking” scheme for political bloggers?

I’m pleased to say that I’ve now received a reply. It came, somewhat incongruously, on paper, through the post (I will be responding in detail via my 50-mile-long network of Semaphore towers), so this is lovingly hand-typed from the original:

Dear Mr Wilson,

Thank you for your letter dated 19th December. I am pleased that you were interested in my recent interview.

As you will have seen from my reported comments any future plan for online media would be to invite bloggers who write on current affairs to volunteer to be regulated by the new system of self-regulation. This logically follows because such blogs are news-like and similar in content to newspapers and magazines.

All media and publications will make mistakes on accuracy from time to time. The important thing is that content is regulated by an agreed code of practice and that errors can be corrected speedily and with due prominence.

With regard to my reported comment that bloggers were a “greater challenge”. This was a passing remark made in an interview which has been amplified. I was not discussing standards in blogs, but rather the structural issue that they represent an area of free speech, which government may want to regulate, or may end up regulating. The point I was making was that work needs to be done to stave off statutory regulation for everyone, including blogs. This is the challenge.

Demonstrating adherence to such a set of standards and to an effective self-regulatory system would of course mean that publications could convey to their readers that they could trust what they read and would mean that readers could recognise the intentions of the editors of that publication whether in print or online. That is why I suggested some kind of “kitemark” would convey a gold standard for those publications that carried it.

I hope the above information helps you understand the voluntary nature of the system I have suggested. Of course the key to the success of such a proposal is designing a new regulatory regime that is seen to be effective and which publishers will want to be part of and buy into.

Yours sincerely,

[signed]

The Right Hon The Lord Hunt of Wirral MBE

Readers will note that David Hunt has sidestepped a number of my questions but let’s focus on what he does say. Hunt’s starting point seems to be that there is a substantial danger that the UK government may decide to impose compulsory regulation on bloggers – and that creating a voluntary scheme of “self-regulation”, run by the Press Complaints Commission (or whatever replaces it), might therefore be an effective way of heading this off.

Now I don’t doubt that a large section of the UK political establishment would love to start imposing further controls on what we say and do online – although it is sobering to see this being discussed as a serious possibility by a Conservative member of the House of Lords.  But the idea that the best way to prevent this is to start accepting “voluntary” regulation of bloggers seems self-defeating.

It’s worth remembering that UK bloggers have never operated in a regulation-free-zone. Bloggers can be – and have been – sued for libel if they write something about somebody that that person finds objectionable. We can, in principle, be sued for breaches of privacy or copyright infringement, arrested for contempt of court if we ignore a gagging order, or subject to police action under lackadaisically-drafted “harrassment” laws. We are subject to the Cancer Act, and the Advertising Standards Agency.

So any new regulations the government decided to impose would be additional to these limits.

A better starting point, it seems to me, would be to insist that the UK government has no business trying to “regulate” the blogosphere beyond the constraints that already exist. Rather than simply accepting the regulation of political speech as a grim inevitability, and then voluntarily embracing PCC oversight in the hope of retaining some measure of liberty, it would surely make more sense to turn the tables and demand that our politicians adhere to the “standards” we expect of them – one of these being a clear understanding on their part that our freedom of speech is not up for negotiation.

Written by Richard Wilson

January 11, 2012 at 11:26 pm