As someone who has enjoyed freedom of speech for 35 years in a country that has had freedom of the press for hundreds of years, I find the announcement of a Royal Charter to govern the press (in the wake of a the Leveson inquiry that was an investigation into the wrongdoings of newspapers that were already covered by the PCC and criminal law) a total fiasco. We don’t need it, we already have laws in place to protect people from unjust stories and lies and salacious gossip and downright bullshit.
The Leveson inquiry was set up quite rightly to look at how the press behaves after phones of celebrities, politicians and murder victims were hacked to provide sensational stories and headlines. The outcome of all of this is this new Royal Charter to govern the press in the UK and it appears to mark the end of the free press. The press in the UK has been irreverent and rude and investigative and sometimes close to breaking already sufficient liable and slander laws for years and as a result we have some of the best journalism and news reporting in the world. Terrible goings on have been exposed such as abuse in care homes and dodgy dealings in business and sport. Without the journalism (of the past it seems) none of these things would have come to light and the world would be a bit more scummy, dirty and dodgy as a result. Of course we have the gutter press too in the UK but I know I enjoy seeing a pair of tits on page three and holiday deals for £10. But tabloids aside, overall, the wide variety of publications and writers that work for our newspapers are truly amazing, they uncover, they report and now they might just back off. What will it mean for investigative journalism? And from my own point of view what will it mean for bloggers and blogging?
I am not an expert in the new rules but I do understand that a clause was introduced to the crime and courts bill in the commons on Monday (18th March), Clause 29, and under that the definition of “relevant” bloggers or websites is used. I understand it to mean: ‘any website or blog that generates news material where there is an editorial structure giving someone control over publication.’ So any fears I have about my blog should be alleviated, right? Well sometimes I blog about news stories and I’m the man with editorial content over what is published as I’m the only person writing and publishing here at bilstonjay.wordpress.com Are blogs that comment on news, news-worthy? Are they an extension of the news? Are they subject to the new rules? Do I need to sign up to a charter in order to have a blog? If the answer is ‘yes’ to any of these questions then I’m afraid the idea of a free press in Britain is dead. Completely and utterly dead. Hundreds of years of rights destroyed in one pointless, unnecessary charter.
So why is free-speech dead? The idea of exemplary damages of course! If you’re not signed up you have no protection. So you then can face massive fines as you’re not covered by the Royal charter. But if you are recognised/acceptable you and your website/blogs are guaranteed exclusion from exemplary damages (which essentially means a fine of up to £1m – nice!). You’re only covered by the charter if you are a ‘news site’ that has multiple authors. But anyone commenting and blogging on news and current affairs, celebrity gossip and gossip about people in the news can be fined under the charter. So a newspaper is covered by the charter and so cannot expect unfair fines (but is expected to play by the rules), a blogger or bloggers aren’t covered and so can face unfair fines.
So if I say something wrong, I’m not covered as a lone blogger (I’m not a news source or newspaper) and so I can face unbelievable fines! If you have multiple authors and are essentially a news-type site you can sign up to the charter (or qualify due to the nature of your online activities) and although you’ll have to act within the law as it has always stood, you will avoid exemplary fines.
Maybe I’m misinterpreting the charter, and it has still got to go through the House of Lords, but what I’ve said above is how I understand the news of a Royal Charter to regulate the press. It seems to me those individuals who want to blog their own point of view and opinion could end up feeling they have too much to lose by saying the wrong thing, or having the wrong opinion, and quit. People will hold back and be fearful of using their freedom of speech. This regulation might stop phone hacking and all of that dark stuff the huge news publishers have gotten up to, but it will stifle the voices of many tens of thousands of little people who do nothing more than share thoughts and ideas and opinions with the internet.
But there may be some small hope. Under questioning during the Commons debate about the courts bill, the culture secretary, Maria Miller, said the “publisher would have to meet the three tests of whether the publication is publishing news-related material in the course of a business, whether their material is written by a range of authors – this would exclude a one-man band or a single blogger – and whether that material is subject to editorial control“. Let’s hope the House of Lords make the necessary changes to the language that lone bloggers such as me are not subject to the rules that were never designed to govern them in the first place.
But if the government think they can stop people publishing exactly what they want to they are mistaken. They cannot control proxy servers and anonymous email and blogging accounts online. They cannot stop people wirelessly uploading or using pay as you go phone sims to upload via such proxy servers anything they want. People can avoid detection if they really want to and flaunt all of the laws. So the government needs to make the rules fair for all or face the backlash that will inevitably happen.
This video here probably explains the charter better than I have, I still feel like I don’t understand it fully, as it’s all so vague.
PS I haven’t even mentioned the European Unions Article on the right to free speech and freedom of expression. But as a European I don’t have to. This is an argument that won’t go away and will be tested by bloggers, news publishers and the European Union. Free speech is a right we’ve had for centuries. We cannot erode it because we fear newspapers underhanded tactics because lets face it, they’ll find a way around this to print what ever they want. It’ll all be in the semantics peeps!