There should be a right to know what’s written about you…

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations — as well it might — has denounced a ruling that says that it is a breach of copyright to forward internet links to news articles. We know that the law is an ass, but this ruling which essentially means that forwarding links as part of your job makes you liable to pay money to the Newspaper Licensing Agency makes a mockery of freedom of speech. It is ill thought out, inconsistent[[1.the judge thought that using a free reader such as Google News would be alright, despite the fact that copyright law does not reference whether or not you are being paid]], and further underlines a system where you are deprived of the right of reply simply by virtue of the fact that you would have to invest a small fortune to find out what is being printed about you.

At the moment, the newspaper industry keeps the law off its back by operating self-regulation through the Press Complaints Commission, and the operation of its Editors Code of Practice. For the most part, if you actually get as far as contacting the PCC, or even mention to an errant paper that you might, this works pretty well. But the catch is, you have to know what’s been printed about you.

Unless you were a major public figure or large organisation, in which case you could probably afford to pay a cuttings agency to keep a look out for you, this didn’t used to be a problem. You would certainly know if a national newspaper was running a story about you, because they would ring you up for your side of it. Likewise, if a local newspaper ran a story, you would generally get to know, either through the journalist asking you for a comment, or your friends and family bringing you a cutting.

Not so now. A story printed in the Nuneaton News or the Walsall Advertiser can be picked up automagically by the mysteries of the internet, and blasted right across the world in no time. This is fine if all they are doing is simply copying the article and reprinting it — they can worry about the copyright, and if it was true when it was written, it’s still true when it appears in the Hindustan Times. We once did a session called “What would Jesus say to Britney Spears”. The USA’s E! Magazine rang me up about it after we put the press release on PA News, and, within a few days, the story was word-for-word on hundreds of newspaper websites as far as Tibet. All good fun. But what happens when, say, Private Eye decides to use the story as the basis for a satirical piece? Or someone uses your part of the story as part of a wider, antagonistic story, about something else. We all remember the time that a mob drove a paediatrician from her home after a News of the World campaign to ‘name and shame alleged sex offenders’. These, and the other victims of mob violence following the same campaign, are horrific enough, but what if it was not general ignorance but a very specific referencing of you as an individual that got picked up in a national newspaper article?

Whenever this does happen, and the PCC does intervene, questions are invariably asked as to whether a public apology is sufficient to undo the damage. That’s a point worth debating as well. But even that depends on you finding out in reasonable enough time that your story has been ‘recontextualised’ in that way.

At the moment, you have no legal right to be informed that someone is publishing about you, and, if you do find out and make a copy of the article, you have broken the law and can be pursued for copyright. And don’t imagine that newspapers don’t pursue people, through their organ the Newspaper Licensing Agency, vigorously and aggressively.

What we need is a simple requirement for newspapers, radio and TV to make reasonable efforts to inform you that you have been referenced in their article. And for you to have a legal right to keep a single copy of that article for your private (or organisational) records. You might not wish to go to the Press Complaints Commission immediately, but, if you subsequently did, you would need all the evidence of the chain of articles which led to the one which you are complaining about. It would not be arduous or expensive for the newspapers to do this. All they would need to ensure that was that their articles were online in such a way that Google Newsreader could grab them, possibly using some kind of tagging in to make it easy to follow.

Something on these lines would do more to make journalists (of the kind that aren’t) more careful about the things they write about people. It would boost the credibility of journalists, quite possibly boost sales of their papers (after all, a lot of people would buy the edition of the paper that had their name in it, even if they were allowed to keep an internet print-out), and ensure that the Press Complaints Commission was really able to ensure that fairness was done to all, thereby keeping at bay the perennial calls for limitations on the Freedom of the Press.

What is standing in the way of this? At the moment, largely the misguided belief that allowing people to keep copies of cuttings is somehow reducing newspaper sales. Ludicrous.

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