Here is the short essay originally posted on my Leveson Report (As It Should Be) project site, explaining my reasons for initiatin the project.
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.
The Daily Mail have published a rather odd hatchet job on Gavin Freeguard, Harriet Harman’s culture advisor. Gavin formerly worked for the Media Standards Trust, who are part of the Hacked Off Campaign. This fact, and some year-old tweets from Freeguard where he (shock! horror!) criticises David Cameron allow Mail journalist Richard Pendlebury to paint Gavin as some kind of Manchurian spad.
We desperately need to hear strong arguments against state-regulation and ‘licensing’ of the press. Left-wingers love to loathe the Daily Mail, but it is a hugely influential newspaper with one of the most visted websites on the Internet. There is no better platform for the arguments against statutory regulation to be presented.
And yet, on the eve of the Leveson Inquiry report publication, there is nothing in today’s editorial on #Leveson. Instead, the Daily Mail editors choose to run a piece which appears to be little more than an ad hominem attack on someone who previously worked for the Media Standards Trust. The pro-regulation camp will spin this a more evidence that the press is unserious about the regulation debate, and more interested in attacking individuals in order to sell newspapers – precisely the sin that (the critics say) makes the case for regulation!
As someone who is very wary about the prospect of state regulation of the press, I find it very is frustrating that the newspaper that could be the most powerful voice for press freedom is pursuing such a short term agenda, squandering its platform, and undermining the case for press freedom at such a crucial moment.
Previously, I asked How Much Code Should A Citizen Know? This led me (and I’m not sure how, possibly via a twitter tip-off) to this fascinating article by Annie Lowrey in Slate. She decided to learn how to code, and in doing so stumbled accross the story of _why, an avante-guarde Ruby programmer who had a huge cultural impact on the Ruby coding community, before mysteriously deleting all his code vanishing from the discussion forums. Its a good read.
What stood out for me was Lowrey’s respect for _why’s privacy. She does discover who he is and where he works, but chooses not to pester the guy when he makes it clear he wants to be left alone.
I’m sure there are many decent journalists who would have behaved in the same way, but as the #Leveson Inquiry unfolds and puts journalism in its worst light, such acts of respect draw the attention.
I was reminded of the actions of blogger LinkMachineGo, who discovered the identity of blogger Belle De Jour in 2003 and kept it secret:
I waited five years for somebody to hit that page (I’m patient). Two weeks ago I started getting a couple of search requests a day from an IP address at Associated Newspapers (who publish the Daily Mail) searching for “brooke magnanti” and realised that Belle’s pseudonymity might be coming to an end. I contacted Belle via Twitter and let her know what was happening. I didn’t expect to hear anything back.
And then early last weekend I received an email signed by Brooke that confirmed that she was outing herself in the Sunday Times because the Daily Mail had discovered her identity via an ex-boyfriend.
This in turn reminds us of outing of Girl With A One Track Mind in 2006, who was outed by the Sunday Times itself, and Nightjack, the police blogger who was outed by the The Times (illegally, so it turned out) in 2009. When the identities of these writers were revealed, their writing stopped and something important was lost from the writing ecosystem.
In all these cases, the print journalist’s desperation for a scoop (revelations that score quite low on Jay Rosen’s taxonomy of scoops) outweighed concerns about the value of the writing that was being produced by the blogger, a fellow person-of-letters. A writer-on-writer attack.
Its odd that the more mature approach to pseudonomity is being manifested at Slate, an online magazine that is only sixteen years old, and by bloggers who have been writing for only a few years. Meanwhile the harmful short-term thinking is happening at The Times, an institution established for a couple of centuries. It points to an arrogance within the mainstream media, a belief that the masthead confers a priority of one’s writing, opinion, and needs. Bloggers have long understood this culture. I wonder if Lord Leveson will challenge it?
The phone hacking scandal is becoming increasingly confusing. During the debate on the issue today, I confess I became utterly lost by Ed Miliband’s long explanation of the relationships and personalities involved. David Cameron was able to use phrases like “conspiracy theory” and “tissue of intruige” which brand the scandal as a Westminster fabrication. John Rentoul is right to say that Cameron’s critics need much simpler language to explain the problem with the Prime Minister’s judgement and relationships.
Labour’s tactic is to doggedly pursue the ‘smoking gun’ of lore: the archived e-mail or the scribbled note that proves that Cameron knew more, and knew it earlier. At yesterday’s select committee hearings, the questions were pitched to discover similar key facts that could skewer Murdochs R and J.
This is risky in both cases, because such evidence may never emerge. It is also counter-productive, because on the meantime, both the politicians and media barons get to punt the difficult questions with “let’s wait until the inquiry” or “I don’t want to jeapordise the criminal investigation”.
A narrow fixation on evidence that could further damage the Prime Minister, or ruin Rebakah Brooks, means that the wider issue – polical, police and corporate corruption – is left to fallow. Rupert Murdoch presided over the expansion of a corporate culture in which the phone-hacking of murder victims and other obscenities were the inevitable end result. Whatever he knew and whenever he was told, he is at fault, he is to blame. Meanwhile, David Cameron’s first act as Prime Minister was to employ someone who he knew had come straight from that morally barren Hades. There may not be a smoking gun, but you can almost see the steam coming off this scandal.