Emily Bell argued yesterday in the Guardian that by making and sustaining a distinction between the press on the one hand and social media on the other the Leveson Inquiry had painted itself into the corner of irrelevance. Her definition of the free press would, instead, be as follows:
The free press of the 21st century consists of the distributed social platforms, the WordPress blogging software and the “dark social” matter of the hidden web, as much as it is the venerable institutions that have local accountability to whatever regulator the UK government should seek to appoint.
Leveson is, however, quite undeterred. He repeated his assertions today as he delivered his 2000-page report on press culture, its ethics and its possibly regulated future. Try minute three of the video below:
He’s clear there is a difference, isn’t he? No doubt in his mind at all. The question is, whose instincts should we run with? Those of a professional journalist such as Bell, seeped, as she is, in communication lore and its dynamics – or a man with the kind of regulatory instincts which only the professions of lawyer and judge can infuse?
I’m not sure, actually, that’s the real issue to hand. I’ve always felt my blogging – and latterly my tweeting and Facebook output – was more along the lines of a global conversation than publishing. Certainly, if anything tended to the latter, it would be this blog – but even there, the habit of hyperlinking and bouncing off other’s occurrences, the fact that the purpose of my blogging has always been to brainstorm ideas and follow them to their ultimate consequences, surely gives me the right to side more with Lord Justice Leveson than with Emily Bell’s almost catch-all attempt to include social media under her professionalising umbrellas.
And I really don’t think I’d be the only blogger or social-media fan to believe that we converse and dialogue more than publish. Whilst Leveson attempts to see beyond the technology – to identify what makes institutional and industrial communication very particular to the health of a democracy, to that holding of power to account – it would appear that Bell seems to confuse means and aims.
That newspapers like the Guardian use social-media technologies – blogging software, tweeting and Facebooking facilities, even the chatty discourse of conversation – doesn’t mean that the original social media, the bloggers and tweeters and Facebookers galore, have suddenly become paid-up members of the official British press. And it goes without saying it’s my firm belief that all attempts to make us so, by anyone who believes that’s the way forward, should be firmly resisted.
Why? Out of pure self-interest? Out of a creeping set of double standards? Out of a desire to be able to say without having to accept responsibility for one’s content?
I don’t think so.
Firstly, bloggers, tweeters and Facebookers do not have access to legions of lawyerly support. Nor, in general, do they have the consistent and easily maintainable visibility which power of any real kind demands. If they do have any power, it is the power of the crowd: a lent out, shared and circulated power. Yes, in its negative manifestations, possibly similar to the power of the mob. But in its positives, a glorious song to human collaboration.
Secondly, if we’re looking to have an area of reasonably public discourse which can follow trains of new and ground-breaking thought to their logical conclusions, which can imagine new worlds and which does offer our civilisation a route out of a pervasive group-think, surely anyone who cares at all about democratic communication will understand we need to encourage the ambiguity that social media has so eagerly generated and enabled. The institutional press, in Leveson’s terms, is there to hold institutional power to account – and quite rightly so. But social media should be reserved, equally rightly so, for the amateur citizen and interested voter to express their opinions as often and as freely as they like.
With certain limitations where the pale is gone so far beyond – but with a desire for “independent and effective self-regulation” whenever the free and open web is able to thus deliver.
As Peter on Twitter said today:
This is one of those days when its good to be mindful of the difference between “free speech” and “free press”
And he’s right. Let us guarantee by all means the freedoms of the press, as Bell fairly pursues. Let us also, however, consciously sustain the right of a virtualised base of evermore engaged citizens to use the very same technologies which the press is now appropriating as its own – but for purely individual, non-institutional, crowd-focussed and conversational purposes.
The difference between the press and social media is, therefore, after all, a useful distinction indeed: it is the clearly understandable difference between writing up and speaking up.
Keep that in mind, dear professional journalists – and it’ll be easier to comprehend why Leveson, in this at least, is absolutely spot-on.
Spot-on, that is to say, in his interestingly outsider’s perceptions of exactly where each of our duties really should lie in the future.
Update to this post: if you prefer reading to watching videos, you can now find a full transcript of Leveson’s statement this afternoon over at the Politics Home website. The executive summary of the report itself can be found here (.pdf file); the report in its entirety here (.pdf file).