When Lord Justice Leveson published his report, most newspapers were united in protest. Why only regulate newspapers when news is moving online? What about Twitter, blogs, the Huffington Post?
Regulation’s purpose, which admittedly its practice does not always serve, is to make sure markets function properly in two ways. First, to make sure they are properly competitive and so work for the consumer. Second, to ensure their operation does not routinely cause the infringement of individuals’ rights. Another way to put this is that regulation is supposed to prevent anti-competitive concentrations of power from developing, but also to limit the abuses of power that can still occur. The wider harms of a lack of plurality in the media market are fairly obvious, as are the dangers to democracy of a media whose proprietors politicians are afraid of. The Leveson Inquiry laid bare both.
Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals for a new system of press regulation focus on how to prevent infringements of rights in future. In designing his system, he clearly focused on major national newspapers, knowing that the immoral practices that led to the establishment of his inquiry were entirely concentrated there. He sought to devise a system that would do two main things: prevent abuses from occurring in the first place through a mixture of standards monitoring and the threat of investigations and fines; offer better redress for those whose rights are infringed, while reducing the amount of civil litigation in the system. In so doing, the system would mitigate the disparities in power between large, powerful publishers and ordinary members of the public.
Most blogs, websites and Twitter accounts cannot libel someone in the way a mass circulation newspaper can; most do not engage in newsgathering, and therefore cannot invade privacy. The damage they do comes from repeating allegations and spreading stories, where the original report was false, misleading or an invasion of privacy. When the BBC reported false allegations about Lord McAlpine, the tweets naming him were invested with a credibility they would not otherwise have had, and caused many more such tweets than a single Twitter user could have. If a major news organisation reports an allegation as true, it lends that allegation much more credibility, and pushes it into the awareness of many more people, than most of the individual sites on the internet could. If anything, the internet increases the need for regulation that prevents failings from occurring in the first place: the huge echo chamber of the internet just needs an allegation to originate at a credible starting point for it to be blasted across social media, blogs and other news websites. In such a context, front page apologies come even less close to correcting the injustice than before.
A website that does not want to be regulated cannot be—that is a basic fact any regulatory system must be designed in awareness of. Even compulsory regulation can be avoided by the website setting up abroad. However, there are obvious costs to doing so if your site derives much traffic from reporting UK news. Physical presence is necessary for actual newsgathering, and for building the relationships with important figures that lead to quotes, interviews, exclusives and so on. A regulatory system could also require some kind of adherence to UK standards in order to get UK advertising revenue.
The real problem comes from sites which are huge and global enough to have significant reach in the UK, but for whom UK news is a fraction of their traffic. If a UK celebrity is living in the United States and having an affair, privacy-invading tactics by reporters of a major global gossip website are not going to be able to be punished by a UK regulatory system. That is a bullet that probably has to be bitten.
It is possible to devise a regulatory system that some UK-based news websites could benefit from joining. If it offers speedy arbitration and lower legal costs for its members, the potential risks of running investigative stories are lower. Moreover, there is still a credibility gap between the established print news brands transitioning to digital and new online-only providers; membership of the same tough, independent regulatory system could narrow it. It isn’t essential to bring every blogger and small news website into that system—just the major UK news providers. Online ones don’t have to be out of reach.