Lord Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report

Only one page out of two thousand was dedicated to online media in Leveson's report on the British press. The editor of the most popular left-wing blog in Britain explains why he thinks this was the right approach.

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Sunny Hundal
30 November 2012

Lord Leveson’s report has attracted criticism from some who say only one page out of 2000 is dedicated to ‘The relevance of the internet’ (pg 736).

I think such criticism is misplaced. Lord Leveson did absolutely the right thing by not focusing much on the internet.

Firstly, and obviously, it wasn’t in the remit.

Secondly, it’s a topic he doesn’t know much about and if he had tried to offer suggestions on regulation, he would have faced much more ridicule. It would have backfired massively.

Third, Lord Leveson is actually much more nuanced than press reports suggest. He writes that the internet works within an ‘ethical vacuum’, but this too has been misinterpreted. He clarifies this:

"This is not to say for one moment that everything on the internet is therefore unethical. That would be a gross mischaracterisation 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. Publishers of newspapers will be (or, at least, are far more likely to be) far more heavily resourced than most, if not all, bloggers and websites that report news (as opposed to search engines that direct those on line to different sites)."

This is absolutely right, and I fully agree with it.

David Banks tells the Guardian: “Leveson is referred to as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and by ignoring the internet, it’s missing an opportunity.” – but there couldn’t conceivably be any regulation that Leveson could demand of bloggers.

I’m not opposed to a voluntary code of conduct that blog editors could sign up to. There could even be a kitemark that blogs could display to signal this to readers. But this wasn’t within his remit and a new regulatory body could easily draw this up if it so wished. In fact, British bloggers could draw up such a code themselves. There was no reason for Leveson to interfere.

Lastly, there is criticism that the internet itself makes press regulation obsolete. I don’t agree with it and Lord Leveson addresses this too:

"In my view, this argument is flawed for two reasons. Putting to one side publications such as the Mail Online which bind themselves voluntarily to the Editors’ Code of Practice (and which is legitimately proud of the world-wide on line readership that it has built up), the internet does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones."

This then refers to the earlier point about an ‘ethical vacuum’, and Lord Leveson rightly says that it would be impossible to get regulation going on the internet. But that doesn’t make press regulation redundant.

"The second reason largely flows from the first. There is a qualitative difference between photographs being available online and being displayed, or blazoned, on the front page of a newspaper such as The Sun. The fact of publication in a mass circulation newspaper multiplies and magnifies the intrusion, not simply because more people will be viewing the images, but also because more people will be talking about them."

Or to put it another way – the front page of Reddit doesn’t break stories about Westminster policy proposals or scandals like the Daily Mail or The Guardian. The newspapers have diminished power but they are still very powerful in their own right. And a lot of BBC News is driven by the press agenda, which strengthens their influence.

The internet has eaten away at newspaper sales and the rise of social media makes it harder for newspapers to push lies. But for some it also means their stories go further as people share that information. Arguably, the internet has strengthened newspaper brands (especially that of the Guardian and the Mail) than diminished their power.

Mark Twain’s famous quote, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” applies even more with the internet. In that sense the internet makes the Leveson inquiry even more relevant and necessary.

Originally published on Liberal Conspiracy.

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