A new kind of libel law and process?

I’ve written recently on how restrictive English and Welsh legislation (more here) really is, certainly to my gobsmacked surprise, in relation to what we have casually understood to date as the right to free speech in these nations.

I’m still cogitating on these matters, as I imagine you are too.

Today, meanwhile, Lord Leveson publishes a 2000-page report on the subject of the press, its culture and ethics – as well as, presumably, suggestions for its possible future regulation.  You can find more background to this report at its current website here.

I’m inclined to believe the best way forward to guarantee the plurality of viewpoints, which Paul mentioned the other day is quite lacking, would be to ensure media ownership was in some way mutualised or devolved to the people who actually did the work, as well as – potentially – to the readers themselves.  This may be a simple prejudice on my part, of course: a cognitive bias from an instinctive “worker”.  (You’re hardly going to see me on a board of directors any time soon, after all.)  But, even so, I’m still inclined to believe that a better transmission of a more representative understanding of what people across the nation think – when they truly think for themselves – would be achieved under such a regulatory framework than the current corporate capitalist version of “free market” communications.

And not that I’m knocking the idea of corporations themselves.  Personally, I feel the concept has been unreasonably hijacked by the very rich.  Corporations are a magnificent organisational tool we will surely need more and more, as society and a wider civilisation become even more complex and tenuously connected.

No.  This is not a diatribe against corporations but a measured and level-headed criticism against a certain implementation.  We don’t need to discard the concept in principle but, rather, should examine different models of corporate governance and structure.  As one of my Twitter friends pointed out:

@eiohel co-ops spring to mind. John Lewis Partnership. Anarcho-syndicalism. Mondragon?

These are still corporate bodies, after all; still massive organisational structures.

They could be used to create media empires that, nevertheless, could still serve to respond to society’s needs for plural and democratically-couched debate.

So I’d prefer a system whereby we regulate and control business structures rather than regulate and control concrete content.  I’m inclined to conclude that bad comes from dysfunctional framing and good comes from reasonable and sensible power relationships.  Concrete content, meanwhile, should be in the hands of moral individuals: people who work in good faith because of who they are and what they subscribe to.


One final thought – too late for Leveson, mind – on how we should deal with the subject of libel.  The recent Lord McAlpine case made it clear that a loose word or tweet can do a lot of damage.  But it is also true to say that in other cases it would appear that English and Welsh libel law has been used to muzzle matters of considerable public interest.  How about we tweak the law as well as the process that surrounds it?

In the following way, that is:

  1. If someone takes out libel action against another, a special legal figure invented for the purpose should automatically kick in and investigate the substance of the issue.
  2. If it is found to be true, the person who complained about the statement should then be obliged to justify why further public dissemination of the information should not take place.
  3. If they cannot justify why further dissemination should not take place, they pay all the costs of the investigation.
  4. If the statement under question is found to be false, the person who made the statement must pay the costs of the investigation and apologise for the statement.
  5. Under no circumstances will compensation be paid to either party.  All that is covered is the cost of the special legal figure and their investigations.  Neither would intentionality be a matter for debate.

Pros and cons?  Further tweaks?  What do you think?

Would the above introduce a more balanced set of dynamics – fit for a 21st century where we have all become potential public-domain communicators?

Or would it open the floodgates to even more dysfunctional discourse than we currently find ourselves witnessing?

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