Real Issues, number 2: Freedom and the Press

Freedom of the Press is a dearly bought and dearly held concept in British democracy. The internet age raises new questions, and, so far, the answers are not clear cut.

The three key issues which the online world raises are:

  • What is the status of ‘citizen journalists’?
  • What are our rights in terms of intrusion on privacy?
  • How should newspapers be able to recoup their costs?
  • 1 Citizen journalists
    Ten years ago, there were online magazines, campaign or issue sites, and bulletin boards. This site began as one of them. Five years ago these were all converging sharply into the world of blogging. Blogging isn’t so much about the technology, as being about citizen-journalist created content, published on the web. Some blogs are anonymous, others are very clearly the property of the writers. Already a number of people have very publicly lost their jobs because their blogs (allegedly) broke the terms and conditions of their employment. More worryingly, a number of people have lost their jobs because their anonymous blogs or online aliases were tracked down, and their employers took exception. Kimberly Swann was sacked for moaning on her Facebook page about her ‘totally boring job’, even though this was essentially a private section of the web which only a few people could see.
    Are bloggers citizen journalists, or are they just bored people making trouble online? What protections should they receive against snooping by their employers if they have taken the trouble to keep their thoughts anonymous? Equally, what recourse should there be for people who have been misrepresented on a blog, short of taking the blogger to court — if they can find them?

    These questions are inextricably linked with the next issue.

    2 Intrusion on privacy
    Traditional news is governed by the Press Complaints Commission Code. The code is sometimes considered very one-sided, giving journalists and editors the right to say almost whatever they want about you as long as they call it opinion, and giving you no more recourse than a tiny retraction on page 16 if the PCC rules in your favour. On the other hand, it is infinitely preferable to taking a newspaper to court which does little more than blazon whatever they have printed about you across the front page of every newspaper and magazine, assuming you are a celebrity. Newspapers accept the strictures of the PCC because they also recognise it as hugely preferable than the alternative — primary legislation limiting what they can write.
    But there is also an implicit assumption in traditional print which is based on the commercial considerations of how much it costs to produce the newspaper: private citizens do not generally get pursued, or, if they do, not for long. On the internet, if someone decides to have a go at you, unless you really are willing to take them to court, they can pursue you for as long as they want. We might assume that the rantings of a single blogger without backing will not do you much harm, and that a lash from the Daily Mail (for example) will sting much more. But the way the global internet community works is based not on status but on interest. An internet activist who can write interesting text — and vituperation can be especially interesting to many people — can get linked by all and sundry, and, as a story in itself, their campaign can make its way into mainstream media. A Robin Hood figure attacking the rich and powerful may well gain our sympathy, and we may wish to assure their protection. But what about someone who runs a vicious (but highly entertaining) online campaign against a local shop-keeper, whose business eventually fails as a result?

    3 Making a profit
    Newspapers will argue that their content is much more expensive to produce than blogs. They are almost certainly right. A number of my friends who are photographers or journalists have lost their jobs over the last two years as a result of the downsizing of the industry. This began long before the recession. Newspapers are finding it hard to compete, as their advertising revenues are going online, and the ‘pence per click’ is just as likely to go to a popular blogger as to their own authoritative and expensive pages. The Newspaper Licensing Agency — not, despite the name, an official body — is now trying to charge for the right to link content, on the rather specious ground that this is a breach of copyright. But the NLA was created by the newspaper industry initially to maximise the profits, but increasingly to shore up the losses, of the content they generate by collecting revenues on copyright materials.

    If we abandon newspapers to market forces, then we will head rapidly towards a world in which unreferenced and poorly sourced gossip is our one alternative to publicly funded news such as the BBC. I’m a big fan of the BBC website, and want it to continue. I regard it as more or less the best site on the internet. But we place ourselves in a parlous position if the only source of news which can pay its way is owned by the government, even at arms-length, through the license-fee payer.

    There are some very easy answers to all of these questions, and they’ve been around for some time. The trouble is, that all of the very easy answers, in their implementation, create much more complex situations and many unintended consequences. However, these matters will not wait long. To leave the questions unanswered is to provide an answer, of a sort. But it is unlikely to be an answer with consequences which we will like.

    The work of the next parliament must absolutely address these issues, albeit quietly, and without trumpets and drums.

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