Richard Wilson's blog

richardcameronwilson AT yahoo dot co dot UK

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

15 Responses

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  1. Over my dead body.

    Old Holborn (@Old_Holborn)

    January 11, 2012 at 11:28 pm

  2. Government approved Kite Mark. Please. Don’t give ‘em ideas.

    I can really see the UK govt going for that, especially as we’re being primed for war and the end of the ‘UK’ is on the horizon.

    For the first time ever, freedom of speech is within our grasp no way is it being given up.

    Suggest an English parliament has a far better chance of carving freedom of speech in stone than the moribund UK parliament.

    Wyrdtimes (@Wyrdtimes)

    January 11, 2012 at 11:40 pm

  3. I can’t immediately see how any such scheme would even be possible.

    Anyway, you’d have thought that The Right Hon The Lord Hunt of Wirral MBE would have been aware that the word ‘kitemark’ is a registered trademark of the British Standards Institution. Perhaps he should report himself…

    Alan Henness (@zeno001)

    January 11, 2012 at 11:51 pm

  4. There’s a gaping hole in your argument above that keeps coming up in this debate, which bloggers aren’t addressing.

    My blog (at guardian.co.uk) is subject to the PCC already. Why should mine be, and not Guido Fawkes’s? And why should “dailymail.co.uk” be subject to different regulation to “wordpress.com”? You can’t go by audience or influence since many independent bloggers have a bigger audience than columnists. You can’t go by profit, since bloggers like Guido Fawkes make more than many contributors at newspapers sites do. (As for accuracy, I’m surprised by questions 3 and 4 above since it’s pretty trivial to find thousands of blogs that are absolutely dire – just look around the alt-med community for a start!)

    Or to put it more bluntly: how can you be against “imposing further controls on what we say and do online” when you’re asking for *exactly* that to be applied to a fairly arbitrary group of people writing online?

    Martin Robbins

    January 12, 2012 at 9:46 am

    • I don’t accept that this is a “gaping hole”.

      The onus is not on bloggers to explain why they *shouldn’t* be “regulated” by David Hunt and the PCC, but on those seeking to do so to justify why they should. The reason your blog is covered by the PCC is because it’s hosted by the Guardian, who have chosen to accept PCC regulation. That’s obviously their call, but I don’t think it follows that because a small number of large media organisations have agreed to sign up to this now-largely-discredited system, every person who chooses to write about politics online should do so too. And again, if bloggers are expected to sign up, why not authors of current affairs books too? The fact that books are exempted from this discussion seems like a huge double standard and – together with Hunt’s rhetoric comparing bloggers to the “Wild West” – frankly a bit suspicious. It doesn’t surprise me that an unelected politician would find the growth of political blogging disturbing but this in itself doesn’t seem like a good reason to take his ideas seriously.

      I take your point about the arbitrary nature of having the PCC regulate only blogs published by media organisations, but it seems to me that the answer might then just be to dispense with the PCC entirely.

      The questions I sent to David Hunt were genuine requests for information. I really am interested to know if he has read more than a handful of blogs, and which blogs in particular he finds most problematic. Readers will draw their own conclusions from the fact that he has not given any reply on that.

      Of course most people who do actually read blogs will be able to point to many examples of misinformation being published online. I could also give you chapter and verse on some blatant falsehoods published in a number of books. But the idea that the PCC, or anything resembling it, would be a good mechanism for trying to referee this just seems absurd. It’s almost as if they’re desperately trying to manufacture a role for themselves as #Leveson steadily chips away their credibility…

      In terms of what can actually be done, I think your medical bloggers example is a really good one. I suspect that as the internet matures we may see some forms of “kitemarking” emerge for specific purposes, including promoting accuracy in reporting – but the ones that get taken seriously won’t be handed down by some politically-compromised Murdoch-funded lobby group linked to the Conservative Party…

      Richard Wilson

      January 12, 2012 at 11:37 am

      • I think one of the holes you’ve plugged with in this comment. You’re implicitly arguing in your post that current regulation of newspapers should be removed. It’s the only logical end result of the statement “the UK government has no business trying to “regulate” the blogosphere.” I think you’ve acknowledged this now but, you didn’t address it in the post itself, and I guess what I’m saying is that bloggers opposed to PCC regulation and defending free speech online need to actually have the balls to come out and say, flat out, that it applies to newspapers too.

        The other is the response to Hunt, which feels like your missing his point a bit. I don’t see anything in Lord Hunt’s suggestions that would have any effect on free speech, he also doesn’t seem to advocate any sort of government regulation of bloggers, and there’s nothing that suggests he finds political blogging “disturbing” – on that basis it’s hard to see where your criticisms are coming from. His suggestion seems reasonable (although I’m not sure it’s workable).

        Martin Robbins

        January 12, 2012 at 9:22 pm

        • I don’t think that’s the only possible conclusion, but certainly
          ditching the PCC would seem like a better idea than trying to extend
          its remit to cover bloggers, voluntarily or otherwise. I guess it
          didn’t occur to me to draw that particular issue out above the line
          because the PCC seems so spectacularly flaccid and lacking in
          credibility that I didn’t realise anyone who wasn’t directly involved
          still thought it had any life left in it, less still that it really
          constitutes “regulation” in any meaningful form.

          In many ways I think the PCC is more closely analogous to a lobby
          group than a regulator. It’s funded and run by the (predominantly
          Conservative) commercial media. It plays a political advocacy role on
          behalf of its benefactors, even to the extent, in the case of
          phonehacking, of making a series of false and misleading statements
          denying the true extent of the scandal and denigrating one of the
          central figures involved in exposing it, Mark Lewis.

          Given the fundamental conflict of interest between the independent
          blogosphere and these commercial media companies – and the perceived
          threat (real or imagined) presented by bloggers to the position of
          more traditional media, I would just not trust an organisation like
          the PCC to play an objective role. What would happen, I think, would
          be that the PCC would continue to play a weak-bordering-on-complicit
          role when it came to the inaccuracies published every day by the likes
          of the Daily Mail, but look for every opportunity to present
          independent blogging as dangerous and problematic.

          You see this already in David Hunt’s characterisation of the
          blogosphere as akin to the “Wild West”, and his suggestion that “we
          need to appoint a sherrif” – which does seem to suggest that he finds
          it all quite disturbing. I’m genuinely intrigued to know who he’s
          talking about here. Paul Staines? Tim Ireland? Zoe Margolis? Petra
          Boynton? Or some mad conspiracy blogger who only a handful of people
          read because he’s a mad conspiracy blogger?

          And I do also think that the question of scale and audience size is at
          least of some relevance here, because an inaccurate statement read by
          millions clearly has the potential to do far more significant damage
          than one seen by just a handful of people. Presumably the reason that
          press regulation was attempted in the first place was that one
          individual newspaper could play such an important role in the public
          discourse, by virtue of their massive readership. Such an organisation
          would also have the resources to make a lengthy and detailed defence
          of their position when the regulator got involved, as we saw in the
          Daily Mail’s response to my PCC complaint last year.

          Even in the alternative reality where the PCC had actually worked
          well, I just don’t see the basis for extending it to cover blogs that
          only a handful of people are reading. I also do think it could have a
          chilling effect on freedom of speech, even if it was initially pushed
          just as a “voluntary” scheme. To take a fairly random example, the
          author of the “Camarthenshire Planning Blog” has already had to deal
          with some pretty nasty behaviour from the council officials she is
          seeking to scrutinise. If she also had to run the risk of endless
          vexatious council-funded PCC complaints every time she put up a blog
          post, this could quickly become a burdensome distraction from
          something she is doing unpaid, in her spare time.

          David Hunt is a Conservative member of the House of Lords. So was the
          last PCC Chair. There are presumably hundreds if not thousands of
          people in this country they could have appointed to that position, but
          both times around they’ve picked an unelected Tory politician to do
          the job. The PCC is also funded by the predominantly-Tory commercial
          press, who make no secret of their political agenda. It’s a deeply
          political institution.

          David Hunt has explicitly raised the spectre of government regulation
          of bloggers, with the implicit threat that if we don’t accept his
          “voluntary” scheme, the government (currently led by the party of
          which he is a senior member) may impose a compulsory one. I find this
          dangerous and irresponsible. I’m not aware of anyone else even
          suggesting that such compulsory government regulation was a serious
          possibility until Hunt started talking about it.

          To the extent that “kitemarking” is useful at all it also tends to be
          very context-specific. So to see that a Twitter account for a famous
          celebrity has been “verified” by the company is arguably a limited
          kind of “kitemark” (if not always infallible). There’s also reportedly
          a “kitemarking” scheme for online ticket sales
          (http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2011/oct/14/kitemarket-fight-concert-ticket-fraud).

          But here’s one reason why Hunt’s PCC-kitemarking scheme is so absurd -
          a kitemark can only ever be as credible as the organisation doing the
          kitemarking, and the PCC has almost no credibility. You *might* get
          somewhere if the process was overseen by an independent group like the
          Media Standards Trust (although they’d probably still have to build a
          much bigger profile before most people had heard of them enough to
          attach much weight to their vetting efforts) but a kitemark from the
          PCC would not be worth the non-existent paper it was printed on…

          And even if it was run well, a centrally-managed “kitemarking”
          approach to signalling general trustworthiness online would seem in
          some ways like a step backwards. Anyone who regularly uses the
          internet to look stuff up (ie. practically everyone) will start to
          develop their own heuristic tricks for critically assessing the
          credibility of a source, and forming our own judgement about its
          trustworthiness.

          This, I think, is happening to a far greater extent than when most of
          us were fed our news more or less passively by our one daily newspaper
          and a handful of TV and radio channels. It seems to me that this is
          overwhelmingly a positive thing, because actually the mainstream media
          never was that trustworthy in the first place and desperately needed
          more scrutiny. If the PCC really are concerned about the profusion of
          misinformation online, a far healthier approach than trying to tell
          people who they can and can’t trust, it seems to me, would be to
          promote awareness of the tools that we can use to figure it out for
          ourselves.

          Richard Wilson

          January 13, 2012 at 12:04 am

  5. 3 – I’d wager there are a lot of anti-vaccine blogs out there.

    Phil Bowman (@phil_b)

    January 12, 2012 at 9:53 am

  6. Just to add what my view is…

    I think Hunt’s proposal is not unreasonable in theory, though I’m not sure how practical it is. An opt-in quality ‘kitemark’ type system that writers online could voluntarily join would allow bloggers to continue as now, and have no impact on freedom of speech, but could in theory give the public a clearer picture of who is reputable online – a similar scheme was run by medical bloggers for some time, allowing qualified doctors giving reliable medical information to use a ‘badge’.

    Two obvious problems though. One, the tabloid market suggests the public aren’t really *that* concerned about quality and accuracy. Two, massive arguments would break out over disputed matters of fact (everything from climate to Guido’s gossip mongering).

    Martin Robbins

    January 12, 2012 at 9:54 am

  7. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    jan frank

    January 12, 2012 at 10:38 am

  8. I am a big fan when people duck questions of simply sending them aagin and saying they have been overlooked and you look forward to a full and proper reply

    mr mustard

    January 13, 2012 at 8:56 am

  9. [...] fellow Tory Lord and Press Complaints Commission Chair David Hunt, Tim Bell reportedly bemoaned the lack of a “regulatory body” for people to complain to [...]

  10. [...] blogger and author Richard Wilson has published correspondence with PCC chair Lord Hunt on his blog, about possible voluntary inclusion of bloggers in a self-regulatory system with [...]

  11. Could it not be a feint to make people believe the blogosphere is not now under censorship?Like the book trade,there is plenty of self-censorship on blogs and people who become a ‘nuisance’ to the establishment’s way of keeping control will find their opportunities to opine diminished accordingly.

    Jacob Jonker.

    January 26, 2012 at 10:48 pm

  12. When I originally left a comment I appear to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment. Perhaps there is a way you are able to remove me from that service? Many thanks!

    blogabbas

    August 14, 2012 at 1:23 am


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