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Legislation After Leveson – The Unified Option

December 2, 2012

In my previous post on Leveson, I referred to the UK’s Prime Minister throughout as David Campbell. He is, of course, called Cameron! I suspect that in my mind at the time he was in the process of morphing into Tony Blair’s ferocious press secretary, Alistair Campbell. The gentleman who pointed out my senior moment, Andrew Morton, an old friend, commented on Facebook:

I remember years ago having a discussion with you, Steve, where we agreed there was just too much legislation going through. And I agree that in this case it’s a moot point – to legislate or not, and how. However, I’m getting a bit cheesed off with this trumpet call about “the press has been free for 300 years” – clearly some dimly remembered history lesson some posh boy has dredged up and spread about. Governments have been interfering with press freedom one way or another throughout this period and it may be that we have to reassess ideas of press freedom and the rights of citizens in a radically new media environment.

I agree with Andrew. The BBC is a case in point. The poor old Beeb, even before it was battered by the recent Newsnight controversy (about which I commented here), has been accused of bias in favour of the other side by just about every government over the past 30 years. Much as visitors to Manchester United’s fortress, Old Trafford, complain that referees are afraid to award penalties against United for fear of the wrath of Sir Alex Ferguson. And, more recently, that whenever United are losing at home, referees seem to allow more injury time than when they are winning – which turns out to be true in recent seasons!

Yes, especially in times of war, the government does indeed heavily curtail the activities of the press in reporting “sensitive information”. In peacetime, it has frequently used the D-notice to prohibit the publication of information that it deems not to be in the public interest, particularly in matters of national security. Other methods of control and manipulation have included “off the record briefings” to the Press – in other words, unattributable leaks from Government sources, sometimes against other members of the government. Over the past 20 years, an army of unelected spin doctors, of which Campbell (Alistair, that is) was the doyen, have perfected the art of conditioning public opinion via the media.

Interestingly, Jon Ungoed-Thomas of the Sunday Times reports in today’s edition that Ed Richards, the Chief Executive of Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator:

Outlined his ambitious vision for media regulation: a common set of standards that could be applied to all forms of publishing, from an internet broadcast to a newspaper article.

It was a simple notion that a unifying code of principles could be applied to every media outlet in the land. But it raised one vital question: who would oversee it?

Ungoed-Thomas goes on to say that Richards was a strong supporter of Tony Blair, and that Cameron does not want Ofcom moving into the domain of press regulation, so that idea is not likely to fly.

The same article speculated that Ed Miliband, the Leader of the Opposition, who initially backed full implementation of Leveson, is now having second thoughts. Sensible chap.

Andrew’s point on “reassessing press freedom and the rights of individuals in a radically new media environment” is well made. But creating a new law, or even a new code, would be a challenge. Britain’s legal system is a mish-mash of statute and common law, overlaid in recent years by legislation adopted throughout the European Union such as the Social Chapter and the Human Rights Act.

As I see it, there are two impediments to creating a “unified law” dealing with the media.

First, the United Kingdom needs to decide whether it wishes to remain in the European Union. If it opts for the status quo, any media law passed will need to be continually in synch with EU ordinances. It also needs to decide whether it wishes to remain a united kingdom. The succession of Scotland from the UK would produce its own round of legal nightmares.

Second, “the media” is changing so rapidly – particularly as traditional outlets converge and merge into the internet – that it may be beyond the ability of legislators to keep up with those changes. The McAlpine defamation saga is a case in point. Who does he sue? The tweeters? The re-tweeters? Under what jurisdiction does he sue foreign re-tweeters? And if he is unable to sue individuals who are subject to foreign jurisdictions, how can he protect himself from the lingering effects of the defamation? Would the UK be willing to apply internet filters to stop domestic surfers from accessing references to him on sites hosted outside the UK? Would such filters work? Ask the Chinese.

Prince William’s efforts to prevent the publication of topless pictures of his wife is another example of the difficulties of controlling content on the internet. He was unable to stop the pictures appearing in foreign print media, and no doubt they are still out there on the internet today for those who could be bothered to find them.

As far as the internet is concerned, Great Britain is not an island. So any law designed to protect individual rights can only be partly effective as long as the internet continues its current path towards domination of the media. Unless, of course every foreign jurisdiction can be persuaded to pass similar legislation. And that will never happen.

So any proposed unified media law passed in the UK will inevitably occupy its creators for a long time, and is only likely to be partially effective. And my guess is that no UK governement will make the effort any time soon. That’s the price we pay for living in a wired world.

From → Politics, Social, UK

  1. Andrew Morton permalink

    Just to ride my little hobby-horse a little longer before I dismount – regarding the much vaunted 300 years of press freedom- I assume this is referring to the 1689 “Bill of Rights”. However, the Bill of Rights, rather like Magna Carta was really about readjusting the power relationship between one set of aristocrats and another. Admittedly, both documents have a powerful symbolic significance, and in reality mark stages in the tortoise-like crawl of this country towards some kind of democracy. Those who cite the Bill of Rights are likely to be exactly those people who want to keep the debate about press freedom in the privileged arena of powerful interest groups regardless of the potential dire effects of press freedom on ordinary citizens. Having said all this, I agree that the matter is complex and to be approached with extreme caution.

    • Thanks Andy

      One of the reasons I blog is that after decades of watching the world go by while getting on with the mundane job of making a living and tending to the needs of the next generation, the internet has given me an independent platform to air views I have shared and discussed with people – such as yourself – on an individual basis since childhood. That’s not to say that I’m free to write everything I would like to without consequences. I live in a region that is increasingly paying attention to online ramblings.

      I don’t really care how many people choose to visit this site, only that those who do find it interesting. The important thing is that the axe I grind is mine alone. No need to squeeze through the portals of the opinion-formers in the print or even the mainstream online media. And an opportunity to reach anyone in the world who sits at the end of a copper wire, an optical cable or a satellite signal.

      The print media is not yet in its death throes, but it certainly appears terminally ill. From my standpoint it is more important in the long term that national or international regulators and commercial interests do not exert the same type of control over the online media as they do on TV and newsprint.

      The increasing migration of conventional media to the internet means that we have a greater choice in what we view and read. And that means that we cannot so easily be prevented from access to content that others might not want us to see. And that content, as we all know, can be malevolent, manipulative and destructive as well as life-enhancing. The internet gives us a choice. We can exercise our critical faculties or swallow without thinking. At the risk of sounding like Eric Cantona, now we’re wandering through the forest and picking our own mushrooms – instead of buying them in a supermarket safe in the knowledge that what we buy is unlikely to kill us.

      So for me, the debate over control of the internet is the big one. Arguing about the print media is starting to look like a quarrel over a sick man’s will.

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