The Leveson report is due out on Thursday and amidst the shouting matches about the future of the printed press and whether they’ll be given one final chance to prove they can effectively self-regulate, one crucial question has been largely ignored.
What happens to internet news sites and blogs? Will the post-Leveson world see the Huffington Post, Politics home, etc treated in the same way as the Guardian and the Independent? They can already join the political lobby, so there is a precedent for treating them in the same way. But is this enough, or will they continue to exist in a grey area?
No one seems to know and even more puzzlingly, no one really seems to care. While article after article has been written on the merits of self vs. statutory regulation (neither is perfect, but the former is preferable) almost nothing has been written on whether the average blogger will be regulated in the same way.
Currently the Press Complaints Commission only covers organisations who have signed up to be part of it and it’s hard to imagine any of the previously mentioned sites signing up for membership. We don’t know whether the Leveson Inquiry will recommend a mechanism that compels media organisations to sign up – but if he does it would be surprising if this applied purely to the printed press.
But if it does apply to online publications, where does it end? At what point does society draw the line and say your site is too small to require regulation? 10,000 page views a month? 20,000? Or are we going to say that every site, no matter how small, which posts topical news and comment pieces will be expected to sign up. The latter is obviously an unworkable option, but such is the lack of debate around the issue that we simply don’t know what will happen.
Even if in the short term, Lord Justice Leveson decides to only recommend changes to the system governing the printed process, this is an issue which will not go away. It’s only a matter of time till The Guardian goes digital only and other papers will surely follow. Does a switch to digital only mean they are suddenly exempt from regulation? And if not, will we have to undergo this whole process again as the government scrambles to figure out how to regulate the online press.
This is not to underplay how fast misinformation and rumour can spread on the internet and how vital it is that people can correct false articles or rogue websites. But that doesn’t mean we should be comfortable with the idea of the government being able to regulate material published on UK based sites.