Press regulation and the Internet's "ethical vacuum"

Following the Royal Charter announcement earlier this week, there has been much concern over how the new system for press regulation will affect bloggers.  English PEN expressed concerns about this immediately after the Leveson Report was published.  On Labour List, Mark Fergerson called the Internet ‘The Elephant in the Room‘ and in the Guardian, Emily Bell said the Royal Charter was ‘illiterate‘ about the Internet.  Since this problem arises from the lack of discussion about the Internet in the Leveson Report, it is worth revisiting that document to see what Leveson actually said.

It is technically wrong to say that Leveson only devotes one page to the Internet in his entire 2,000 page report.  In Volume I, pages 164 to 178 are given over to describing part of the online publishing ecosystem – Huffington Post, Popbitch, and Guido Fawkes.  However, there are only five paragraphs of actual analysis on the Internet, on pages 736-37 (Volume II).  Leveson says:

Many editors and commentators have argued that the burgeoning of the internet is likely to render irrelevant much of the work of the Inquiry even assuming that it has not already done so. If, for example, celebrity X’s privacy is violated online, then the metaphorical cat is well out of the bag, and there is no reason why open season should not exist in the printed media. …

In my view, this argument is flawed for two reasons. … 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 miischaracterisation of the work of very many bloggers and websites which should rightly and fairly be characterised 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.

This, in a nutshell, is the justification of focusing on regulating the tradition print media, and not on the wider publishing ecosystem.  Superficially, Lord Justice Leveson’s reasoning seems persuasive, but I think he mistakes precisely what ‘freedom of the press’ actually is.  Writing in the New Statesman last July (i.e. before Leveson reported), legal blogger David Allen Green explained the term:

The “press” to which it refers is often identified by many in England with the big-P Press of Fleet Street: the professional journalists who have “press cards” and go along to “press awards” …  But this may not be the best way of understanding the term.  In fact, the expression “freedom of the press” significantly predates the existence of the modern newspaper industry, which was largely a product of the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Instead, the expression “freedom of the press” came out of the great age of pamphleteering and protest which occurred during and after the civil wars in Britain of the mid-1600s…. In this way “freedom of the press” was not some entitlement of a media elite but a more basic right of anyone to circulate their ideas more widely than they could do simply by themselves.

So perhaps Leveson is wrong to suggest that bloggers and the Internet exist in an ‘ethical vacuum’.  The act of publishing what you wish, without interference, is inately a ethical act, excercising moral rights, that is available to everyone.  Its wrong to create a two-tier ethical system, with bloggers and print journalists on different planes.  And it is wrong to create enshire a two-tier regulatory system in law, too.

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