Leveson and the Internet

Sounds like some weird indie band, right? But no, the Leveson report came out last week and in it, Lord Leveson suggested that a new watchdog, independent of newspapers and MPs, with statutory underpinning, should regulate the press. Although this is what most expected, it means that the press could become diluted and investigative journalism could be seriously damaged.

 

In his report, Lord Leveson has a chapter entitled The World Wide Web. Before you ask, yes he does mean ‘the Internet’. The whole chapter has been written as if the man is unfamiliar with the concept and has just Wikipedia’d a few things.

“At its simplest the Internet is a system of interconnected computer networks which use a standardised  address system to enable the identification of each of the electronic devices that make up the network.” (Leveson Report, p.164)

So, are we to trust Leveson’s views and opinions on the ‘World Wide Web’ when he only has 13 pages about it out of the whole 2000-page document? Emily Bell, writing for The Guardian, has claimed that the whole report is “irrelevant to 21st-century journalism“. She said that it’s hard to regulate the internet when the two biggest news providers (Google and Twitter) have servers outside the UK and concludes:

“To put “the internet” within the scope of Leveson would be as daft as it would be futile, and to regulate the press further, without having a broader definition of who “the press” might be, is a recipe for irrelevance. The public deserves a vigorous free press, interested in digging out stories, and it deserves to have rights championed and explained in a murky world where the principal guarantor of privacy is wealth.”

Twitter is probably the worst offender when it comes to regulation and breaking the law. But with over 170 million active users worldwide, is Twitter – and perhaps the rest of the internet – outside regulation?

Of course, there are certain laws that can be used against it. Lord McAlpine, who was falsely accused of paedophilia, plans to sue tweeters with more than 500 followers (including Sally Bercow) who named him, and asks those with fewer to donate £5 to Children in Need (source). It will be interesting to see how this pans out as it could lay a new path for those who have been libelled and could prove that Twitter is not above the law.

When the photos of a naked Prince Harry in Las Vegas appeared on the internet, Royal lawyers warned and asked the UK press not to print them. In a seemingly bold move, The Sun chose to ignore them and printed the photos as their splash the following day anyway, along with an explanation as to why. They claimed their readers had a “right to see them” and that the newspaper could not compromise the Prince’s privacy as he had already done that himself. For the first time, the difference in freedom between the press and the internet was laid out for people to see and, as a journalism student, I could understand The Sun‘s frustration.

Leveson has asked that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) could block such content, meaning we would never have seen the naked Prince Harry photos without The Sun – of course, whether we needed to is beside the point. But that is merely compromising our freedom of speech when the information is available, rather than enforcing the law on the source. Arguably, that is more difficult, but when you take into consideration that the future of our press could be the same and that cases, such as Trafigura, might not be revealed, it all starts to feel a little worrying.

For now though, I will leave you with this blog by FleetStreetFox, which tells of a Leveson-initiated future in the press…

“* Journalists repeating unsubstantiated claims that the 1989 Hillsborough disaster was a cover-up orchestrated by senior police officers have been jailed. Calls for an independent inquiry by relatives of the dead were described as “baseless” and “grossly defamatory” by civil servants from regulator Ofpress, who gave evidence against the journalists.”

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