Help – I’m not being Oppressed!

And lo, it came to pass. A press regulation system, (a rather moderate, and proportionate press regulation system, to be frank) has been proposed, and as I suggested the other day, the drama hasn’t really been about the reaction of Rupert Murdoch, but about the outrage of a grumpy band of modern-day hawkers, balladeers and pamphleteers.

Part of this is self-dramatisation, of course. Nothing is more agreeable to a certain cast of mind than bravely making a stand against largely imaginary oppression. It has all the rewards of standing up to real oppression, but little of the risk.

Anyway, I’m not exactly sure what people are worried about. As far as I can tell, the threat of the libel laws has been pretty effective in clamping down on those who make ludicrous claims on the internet, and it may well be that the changes to the libel laws that have accompanied the Royal Charter actually mean than once it’s all netted up, people like me are freer to make misleading, unfair and tendentious comments about other people to our tiny audiences than we were before.

Certainly, Simon Singh will be freer to make reasoned arguments against balderdash-peddlers, which is probably more important.

What’s more, it seems that some sort of exemption will be drafted for small websites.  Call it the “Unpopularity Exemption”. The rule could be that if no-one really cares what you think, it doesn’t matter what you say! Mind you, that could be quite annoying as well. I’d hate to wait patiently to be oppressed, only to discover that I’m not successful enough to bother with. It’d be a crushing blow to the old ego.  Look, I demand to be regulated as a threat to the common weal. I’m important, goddammit.

So, I’ll wait and see, and in the meantime, I’ll cast myself as a potential martyr for free speech. You’ll prise my website from my cold dead hands, you fascists. Etc Etc.

But for all that I don’t really mind the prospect of being regulated, it still doesn’t mean that the regulation process makes much sense to me. This is as much a technological and industry design issue as a regulatory issue.

How do you ever draw a meaningful exemption between “big” and “small” media, as is now being proposed?

One of the interesting things about the reaction to the draft charter is how it has been driven by those who sit on the uncomfortable interstices of our media landscape.

You see this in the reaction of small magazines, who worry that they will be crippled compared to unregulated websites. You see it in the frowns of medium-sized, professional websites, who fear (or thumb their noses at) at consequences of being included in regulation. On the other hand while they don’t like it much, the big publishers can probably afford to join some sort of regulatory body since they are reasonably well resourced and set up to deal with legal and regulatory challenges1.

Indeed, if you’re the Daily Mail, or the Sun websites, there might even be a commercial advantage in a media regulatory system that might also regulate more mobile and aggressive competitors. If the 3am girls are lagging TMZ or popbitch, this might actually be good for them – and I have no idea how you draft a legally watertight system that demands control of one, but has no consequence for the other. I’m no lawyer though, so maybe it’s possible. If I were Associated though, I’d be lawyering up on exactly this point.

But even if you can make some legally watertight Plimsoll line for media regulation, I’m not sure that you should.

Again, this is a technological and structural issue. Lets say I go on twitter and say something horrid. I have just under 7,000 followers, and I’d guess half of them either don’t really exist or don’t read what I say. So. I’m small-time, like a weekly free-sheet, say, or a small left-wing magazine. Not covered by any system of regulation.Not intended to be. A blow for my ego, that, but I can take it.

But say my tweet links to my blog, and it gets retweeted, and as a result, by some viral freak a million people see it, and the accompanying youtube video I made? Does the size of my new audience mean that I become liable? Surely not.

But then how is this different from the Sun making the same vile smear, or a big name journalist on their personal twitter account? Does it become a question of intent? Clearly I wanted as many people as possible to see my diatribe, or I wouldn’t have posted it.

Does it become purely the responsibility of the “popular”, so someone with 100,000 followers has a greater responsibility? But then does a local newspaper with 100,000 readers have the same, or a different level of regulatory liability to a part-time journalist with 100,000 followers? If not, why not?

Because one is a business and the other isn’t? But how do you justify treating one business (a struggling small newspaper) differently to another (a successful sole trader/freelancer)?  What if it’s not a business, but I have ads on my site, so I profit from the surge in traffic? Is it about physical presence? But how does one justify that? If I rustle through someones bins to put the contents on the internet, why would that be less intrusive than putting it online?

You can see how all this could get very messy, very fast.

I have a sneaking feeling that this could become a Dangerous Dogs act. A legitimate public concern about feral beasts, translates a reasonable political pressure to act, then a nightmare of exceptions, exemptions, regulation and case law.2

What’s more, it probably won’t even work to stop the intended evils, as Paul Anderson’s example of Scumbag online (and the older history of Press regulation in Britain) suggests.

So while I don’t think the system proposed is particularly onerous in intent, outrageous in purpose or will be repressive in action, I don’t really get the point.

I keep coming back to the view that the outrageous things the media do are generally either illegal anyway (like phone and email hacking), can be made illegal for everyone, large or small, if we want to (like bin-rifling) or are a cultural problem that regulation won’t stop. (Such as the harassment of unpopular or weak minorities).3

These can each be dealt with in better, more direct ways. So why not do that?

  1. and minnows, like me, feel fairly sure we’re not covered, but wonder what happens if we ever stopped being miserable failures and bedroom bloggers []
  2. It is perhaps ironic that the Dangerous Dogs Act was driven by a tabloid storm. As ye sow, so shall ye reap and all that []
  3. There’s also a legitimate fear of unintended consequences – for example for public sector whistleblowers and so on. What if a police officer told a reporter about a sex scandal featuring a celebrity that was being hushed up because the case wasn’t weak enough to prosecute []

One Response to “Help – I’m not being Oppressed!”

  1. Brian Hughes

    I’m dismayed that, although I’ve patiently explained it to you at least once before, you don’t appear to understand that the main purpose of any law is to make money for lawyers. The greater the ambiguity the greater the opportunity for fees.

    You really should brush up on your, largely-unregulated and certainly-out-of-copyright, Dickens.

    Reply

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