Leveson's Legacy – The Licensing of Blogs and Twitter?
In all the hubbub over the debate on press regulation one overlooked aspect of the Cameron-Clegg-Miliband press package is how it might apply to blogs and indeed Twitter. Paul Staines, aka Guido, argues that the new regulation will apply to blogs. He may well be right.
Under the draft Royal Charter and associated regulation the media will be offered the opportunity to register. However, Schedule 4 Para 1(b)(ii) of the Draft Charter states a ‘relevant publisher’ includes ‘a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a newspaper or magazine)’. News-related material is defined in Para 1(e) as ‘news or information about current affairs; opinion about matters relating to the news or current affairs; or gossip about celebrities, other public figures or other persons in the news.’ The fuzzy definition of ‘relevant publisher’ could cover a lot, and will extend to news blogs and some Twitter accounts. It would cover blogs written by politicians such as John Redwood.
What are the implications of this? Well, no doubt there is going to be a fee for registration. A licence fee in effect. So notwithstanding what the politicians say this is press licensing, the antithesis of press freedom as we have previously conceived it: The liberty of the press ‘consists in printing without any previous licence, subject to the consequences of law.’ R v Shipley (1784) 4 Dougl 73 at 170, Lord Mansfield CJ. Critical will be the level of the fee which if set too high this will significantly chill much blogging and news related Tweeting.
Registration will, of course, be ‘voluntary’. But those who stay outside the Charter approved regulator run the risk of of punitive damages, plus costs, in any action they might lose. This will no doubt be given effect via the ‘dab of statute‘ though some of this change will come in via the Civil Procedure Rules. These regulatory features are undoubtedly incompatible with Article 10 (chilling effect etc), and possibly Article 11 (de facto compulsion to join a body). But again these features will chill speech, especially for those who are not media companies and who do not have easy access to a friendly lawyer.
As it stands the Draft Charter is badly drafted. The definition of ‘relevant publisher’ is overbroad with the regulatory net is cast far too widely. Of course some blogs such as the Huffington Post are clearly blogs of national significance, if not de facto newspapers. But most aren’t, and there is no need to subject them to such regulation. The definition of ‘relevant publisher’ needs to be re-drafted.
Of course, bloggers were not the culprits behind the phone hacking and other press wrong-doing that led to Leveson. Indeed, Leveson failed to properly discuss electronic media. But this has not prevented our politicians from seizing the opportunity to regulate blogging with regulatory changes that are more at home in Beijing than Britain.