There have been some consultation meetings held, separately by DCMS and Hacked Off to discuss the impact of the current Leveson implementation proposals on ‘smaller bloggers’. I made an unanticipated return from paternity leave to politely barge invite myself to these meetings yesterday and today to help DCMS and Hacked Off understand the perspectives of hyperlocal bloggers. I also ensured that a broad spread of hyperlocal site operators, including forums, nings etc were invited to take part.
It was all done at very short notice and in London which is unsatisfactory but reflects the reality of the bizarre Leveson process. I know Simon Perry of On The Wight attended a couple of meetings. I was at pains to say that I did not represent hyperlocal bloggers but could toss in a range of issues I knew to be of concern or might reveal unintended consequences. Those new to the area should read the Media Reform Coalition paper.
The list below is a rushed readout and should be seen as E&OE but I wanted to push this out to a wide hyperlocal network. Please leave comments on anything you want me to feed in. If Simon Perry was able to comment that would be great. Much of the discussion was about who was a relevant publisher and their relationship to new regulatory schemes.
The meetings were under a Chatham House rule of non-attribution to individuals. In discussion the following points were made:
EDIT – I said this was E&OE – i ran this by Hacked Off after publication they objected to the phrase
‘Neither Hacked Off nor DCMS know enough about local bloggers’
Evan Harris quite rightly said that:
‘In the end it is DCMS that must understand hyper-locals and do the re-drafting, so to kind of number us with them seems a little unfair. We are trying to help you get your message across.
Both our meetings were advertised as Skype so that people could attend without being in London so your mention of the meetings being in London and thus unsatisfactory only applies to DCMS not to us.’
This is a fair point and in the spirit of this work i correct it inline, rather than sticking it in the comments. Also I recall DCMS offering a phone-in.
The process is wholly unsatisfactory for small bloggers, they have to have time to be consulted, not really having a professional trade body nor collective voice.
The media has accrued its current power which the Leveson process suggests some players have abused through oligopolies created by high barriers to entry. The best way to dilute that power is encouraging market entry by new operators, using modern technologies that avoid these high barriers. Hyperlocals are one such form.
Seeking to define ‘blogger’ and ‘forums’ in law is ridiculous. In 2000 OFCOM was put forward in part to provide an answer for the problems posed by technology advances in communications. Instead of defining complex technical things in law which would be out of date Parliament created a regulator with a large balanced board that could take decisions on technology issues as they arise within a broad framework set for them in law. So the principles are enduring and the law doesn’t get out of date – OFCOM has informed discretion to apply the law as technology changes. This approach could be used here.
The definition of relevant publisher was a first try, the intention was not to catch small blogs
Ministers on the floor of the house can make statements about their intent that should help in case law. Case law to establish who is in and out of the process could be expensive and lengthy.
Small local bloggers, who often have no resources, can be bullied by bogus defamation cases crowding free speech – this happens out of the public eye
It isn’t clear that the intended opt out for forums quite grasps the evolution of forums into multi-part forum/blog/wiki products nor the way moderation can happen in practice.
Many hyperlocals are team blogs, with editorial control, reporting news-like activity, even if they don’t regard themselves as news blogs. Some are companies, ironically often in order to gain protection of the creators house from a bully defamation case. Comments on hyperlocals are more often moderated than it may appear, even though that undermines a defence on a defamation problem.
Few hyperlocals make money, but the activities of many in selling the odd advert or sponsor to cover low costs might well be covered by recent developments in the arcane definition in law of ‘in the course of business’ as set out in the draft Bill.
The VAT registration threshold as a trigger would carve out most hyperlocals.
The reasonableness test not to have joined a scheme get out might yet give an opt out for small hyperlocals from punitive measures
Some hyperlocals might want to opt in to a regulator even if they don’t meet the qualifying criteria as a badge of professionalism, but the mechanism has to be proportional, affordable etc. Admission to a regulator might for some be as useful as a form of insurance, which you can’t really get against defamation given its open ended liability.
Other hyperlocals don’t want to be regulated – the burden would be too high for them and they simply don’t agree with it.
Parliament needs to be careful that it doesn’t push people into uncompetitive technology choices as technology moves ahead and regulation remains static.
Publishing from say wordpress.com or Typepad in the USA makes no difference – if a post is written in the UK and has effect here then it will be covered, similar to defamation law as it currently stands
It seems likely that Parliament will debate these clauses on 23 April. It was observed that DCMS just has time to publish draft clauses in advance, but they could not commit to that.
That’s it – as I said above a rushed read out – please comment quickly if you feel there are other points that should be put into play.
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