James summarised it thus (more than fully) on November 30th, in a piece clearly titled “#Leveson is excellent on internet free speech. He didn’t brush over it, he robustly defended it”:
Leveson [...] draws a clear distinction between a news outlet which claims to provide trusted reporting and the internet in general, where there is no implied trust (although Leveson uses the term ethical rather than trusted, which in this particular case I believe are interchangeable as trust in news output flows from ethical journalism).
Chapter 7, section 3.2:
“… the internet does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones. Some have called it a ‘wild west’ but I would prefer to use the term ‘ethical vacuum’. 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.”
Leveson doesn’t say this but there is also a jurisdiction issue online. It’s not strictly true that bloggers may act with impunity if based in the UK, as there’s always the possibility they will be traced using existing legal instruments and prosecuted or face civil proceedings for libel or privacy breach.
“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). Newspapers, through whichever medium they are delivered, purport to offer a quality product in all senses of that term.”
James also goes on to point out the difference between social media making content available and the very same content being “emblazoned” on the front page of a highly visible online newspaper.
So. We have an ethically-driven industry versus an ethical vacuum such as the Internet. And we have the industry of extreme visibility versus the amateur placing of content at a much lower level. As I pointed out a couple of posts ago (the bold is mine today):
Some further thoughts, then, on where this might all be leading us:
- We need to look beyond the tools and their physical manifestations – it’s always easy to notice the technology and think that content must inevitably follow suit. What’s clearly missing in all kinds of media at the moment is the instinct to reflect and think behind the headlines before putting virtual pen to paper – the impulse to leave, for a few days as a draft, a piece of work usefully unpublished. Blogging is as guilty of this as any newspaper columnist out there. I am as guilty of this as anyone else.
- I would also ask us to keep in mind that whilst the free press belongs to limited liability industry, free speech should belong to unlimited liability people. And the rights and responsibilities, as well as the punishments for transgression and so forth, should be quite different in each case. If we believe that international corporations are better guarantors of our free press than the laws of representative democracy, then the real problem doesn’t lie in statutory underpinning or not – it lies in a democracy which isn’t representative enough. No amount of any social media under the evermore fierce gaze of Western governments is going to fix a system as broken as that.
- A people’s press, then, perhaps? A kind of Fifth or Sixth Estate? We need statutory protection for free speech here in the UK at the very least if we are to propose such a model.
- The ideal? Maybe an osmotic world of information exchange where industry and people interface to their mutual benefit. But not under the current weight of English and Welsh libel laws.
Leveson, then, as per the slant James places on him at the end of last month, seems clear that there is a substantial difference between, on the one hand, the Internet as it has grown up and is manifesting itself through blogging, tweeting and Facebooking and, on the other, the industry of highly visible newspapermen and women.
But today the Guardian publishes a report on a conference Leveson has just given. An immediate observation: I thought at the time of the report’s launch, Leveson had assured us he would take no questions and make no further comments. The second “public outing” in as many weeks would seem to give lie to such assurances.
Or maybe I misunderstood.
Or maybe I simply invented the moment.
Talk about picking and choosing your stage …
Anyhow. At least according to the Guardian, Leveson is now in two minds about the Internet. Whilst he still accepts that social media is the “electronic version of pub gossip”, and does seem to accept that this might actual inscribe a virtue for human thought (that is to say, the thinking of the unthinkable – the freedom to go anywhere with a train of thought), he doesn’t seem quite convinced any more that the implications in relation to law, and what and how we should apply it, should be followed through.
What’s more, he seems to recognise the ethical side of the newspaper industry isn’t quite as ethical or convincing as it might be, especially when he says:
[...] if journalists saw the law going unenforced against bloggers, it might “undermine media standards through encouraging them to adopt a casual approach to the law”.
“If we are to ensure that appropriate standards are maintained, we must meet these challenges, and ensure that the media … is not placed at a disadvantage where the enforcement of the law is concerned,” Leveson said.
I think, to be honest, and I’m happy to be corrected if you feel I’m being too cynical, that those who’d really be placed at a disadvantage would not be the media but, rather, the rich, powerful and/or well-connected who strive to manage the news which journalists are allowed to print. If such things as described by Greenslade are happening already – and they have happened for a long time I am sure – just think what they could get away with under a regime where lawyerless and amateur communicators could be silenced and punished to the same degree as an industry.
Leveson is right to say:
[...] that it was a “pernicious and false belief” that bloggers were not subject to the same laws as print and broadcast journalists.
But he is wrong to argue that, in exactly the same way, both individual free speech and the industrial free press should be marshalled, controlled and punished by our justice system.
It’s just not fair, proportional or democratic. If my yearly income is a minuscule percentage of what a media behemoth turns over globally, I can hardly be held equally responsible for errors of judgement.
Now can I?
So I come to my last question: what does Leveson really think about blogging? Is it a force for good which often takes us to the wilder parts of human thought in a productive and constructive manner? Or is it something which for the good of the status quo must now be progressively chilled into holding back its occurrences?
A sensibly policed state – or the anteroom of a police state?
Where is Leveson now?