Only “very stupid” think press regulation should go beyond big media, argues Tom Watson

22nd March, 2013 8:51 am

At 3pm today, the deadline arrives for changes to the clauses around Leveson. Of particular concern is the extremely broad definition of “relevant publisher” – which would include blogs such as LabourList (and many small print publications) – in a sweeping expansion of new regulator’s remit.

With only 6 hours to go, we’re told that Labour and Tory DCMS teams are meeting this morning to try and find a solution. We certainly hope there is a willingness to do so – The Leveson process was never intended to lead to a blog regulator.

One person who also seems to disagree with the “relevant publisher” clause at it currently stands is Tom Watson – who as a campaigner on both press regulation and digital rights has a particular interest in this area. Speaking to LabourList this morning, he told us:

“It is clear to all but the very stupid that the new system should only apply to big media -with print operations that might also have a digital presence. Maria Miller should urgently clarify how this will be achieved.”

We couldn’t agree more – the clock is ticking. 3pm is getting close. Other politicians take note.

  • Earlshill

    too late Tom….as you sow, so shall you reap……

  • Hugh

    So what does he reckon?

  • Surely this actually demonstrates the flaw in the whole concept? The Daily Mail website is the world’s most read online news source. Is Tom really arguing that if the Mail scraps its print edition (like Newsweek did) then it should automatically escape the new regulatory regime but until then it should be bound by it? because that’s actually pretty odd, no?

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  • Steve Buckingham

    This whole deal does remind me a little of the shambles that was the Dangerous Dogs Act.

    Who gets to decide whether a blog should be regulated? Is having a news section enough? Is it only blogs with a certain number of page views per week? Is it only websites that are related to a print title? What about an internet only blog that has a larger readership than a print newspaper (and lets remember that print readerships are declining).

    What happens if more people read LabourList than the Yorkshire Post?

    Although I can see a logical exclusion for blogs with a single contributor, for blogs with multiple contributors that act as news sources I think that whilst you could perhaps set a fair measure based on say unique visitors vs. circulation between print and internet, and only regulate above a certain level, to exclude a site from regulation simply because it is internet only is to ignore where the world will be in a few years. Looking at the way The Guardian is going it is already hard to see why they bother with their print edition.

    Beyond some fare readership level comparison I think you’re either basically for regulation or against. To be against for the internet only is to say either ‘the internet is good and doesn’t need to be regulated’ or ‘the internet is special we shouldn’t be subject to the same journalistic standards as a print journal with the same readership level’.

    • The answer to the question “who gets to decide whether a blog should be regulated” should be: each individual blog itself. That’s what Leveson wanted.

      I don’t think it should be Tom Watson or Maria Miller who decides.

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  • Amber_Star

    What’s the problem? Labour List already gives people a chance to respond to & correct anything which they dispute. I can’t imagine that Mark would be slow to issue an apology on behalf of Labour List to anybody who provided proper evidence that he’d ‘wronged’ them. Can somebody help me to understand why the regulations applying to blogs is a big deal?

    • I’m inclined to agree with you. We have argued from the start that press regulation is not state control or restriction of free speech, but a mechanism to ensure the media behaves responsibly. In which case, why should that same reasonable principle not apply to blogs?

      • Hugh

        Threatening blogs with exemplary damages and with meeting libel claimants’ legal costs (regardless of the outcome) unless they sign up to and pay a regulator before they publish a political opinion is not a restriction on free speech?

        The same was argued for the press, yes. It wasn’t convincing there, either, but at least supporters could point to abuses (we’ll ignore for the moment that the worst were already illegal and that a Royal Statute and straight state regulation has not stopped broadcasters libeling old men as paedophiles, and covering up cases of actual paedophilia). In the case of blogs, there isn’t even that.

        Given the implicit presumption in favour regulation, why, frankly, stop at those using multiple writers? Why not just have everyone who wants to share their thoughts online sign up? Perhaps we could go with the government’s initial position, and just leave it the regulator to sort out such trifling issues.

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  • Tom’s dead wrong on this, I’m afraid, in spite of the great work he’s done on holding the press to account. The whole point of Leveson (who clearly recommended that self-regulation be open to even very small web publishers) is that if offer benefits for being regulated that he thought outweighed the burdens. Why else did he think his recommendations contained “incentives” for self-regulation? It wasn’t all stick.

    As a lone blogger, I would like to be regulated, and as a result, protected from having to pay someone’s costs if they sue me for libel. That on its own would remove the biggest single threat to my website.

    I have no fear of exemplary damages. I might libel someone inadvertently. But I’m pretty sure I’m not going to recklessly disregard their rights in an outrageous way, which is what I’d have to do to have exemplary damages awarded against me. And anyway, if I did that, it’s possible a court could award exemplary damages against me even if I weren’t subject to regulation.

    I think bloggers are afraid of the “burdens” of regulation only because they don’t understand Leveson’s recommendations. I have no problem with any blogger who chooses to be unregulated. I think they should be free to make that choice. But I want the choice to go the other way. I don’t want Tom Watson making the choice for me.

  • markfergusonuk

    Carl – there’s a huge difference between choosing to be regulated, and being effectively forced into a regulatory system designed for newspapers on the basis of poorly worded legislation and the threat of exemplary damages.

    • People aren’t being forced into regulation by threats of exemplary damages, Mark. That’s tabloid propaganda. If you look at the provisions, you’ll see that exemplary damages will only be award in very narrow circumstances (just as they can be already in libel cases). I’d be absolute lf amazed if you really thought LabourList could ever behave outrageously enough to have to pay them.

      The costs provisions are much more important – and will operate in favour of bloggers who join, but not against them, if it was reasonable for them to choose not to.

      This is a choice, and a good one for bloggers, either way. Ed Miliband was right to back Leveson, and I hope he continues to back Leveson’s logic against the scaremongering of the tabloids. This blog thing is just the latest scare.

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