Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Ssshhhh… don't tell the Press Police I'm back

Where've I been? Keeping my head down in case Paul Uppal MP or Peter Rhodes report me to the new Press Complaints body and sue me for millions.


No. The current hysteria about whether bloggers are going to be state-regulated by a committee of freedom-haters has been whipped up by the newspapers which have hacked, stolen, bribed and lied for years and having been caught, are desperately trying to grab fig-leaves of principle to hide behind. Most shamefully of all, the rightwing papers are citing European Human Rights law in their defence: the very human rights legislation they think should be abolished. 

Like you, I haven't read the small print of the proposed Royal Charter. My instinct is that the press should be free to make mistakes and pay for them afterwards (basically Milton's position in Areopagitica). However, I do feel that the press became dependent on lazy, illegal and bullying methods in pursuit not of Speaking Truth To Power, but of cheap headlines about unimportant things. It's one thing to fake a fax to catch a government minister lying about arms deals, as the Guardian did (illegal but in the public interest), it's quite another to hack celebrities' friends phones to discover who he's dating or where she had dinner. 

The existing Press Complaints Commission was a joke. It was set up by newspapers, run by the editors and owners of the most offensive newspapers and the code was deliberately written to be meaningless and unenforceable. Take the two occasions on which I complained. The first complaint was about the Daily Mail, which ran a report about the student riots on the news pages. The article in question claimed that some female students were there solely to get dramatic Facebook photos, and went on to make a number of misogynistic and speculative claims. I complained under the sections referring to accuracy and substantiation. Complaint rejected because the piece was 'opinion', despite being printed in the news section and presented as an eye-witness report. Complaint 2 was about the Express and Star's predilection for repeatedly dehumanising Travellers and explicitly linking criminality to their ethnicity. Rejected: the rules say that an individual from an ethnic group can suffer in this way and protest, but an ethnic group can't. So – as I pointed out to the PCC, its rules mean that you can't say 'Paddy is an Irish Traveller which is why he's a thief' but you can say 'Irish travellers are congenital thieves'. You might not have strong feelings either way about Travellers but try replacing that with 'black people' or 'Jews'. 

So for me, it's time for the newspapers to be answerable to a firmer authority than their own little club. They can be as offensive as they like – but unless there's a clear public interest defence, they have to acquire their stories legally and be prepared to check their veracity much more carefully. They might run more boring stories but they'll be better papers in the long run (except for the Mail and Express which will be 3 pages long once the made-up racist and health scares are abandoned).

The newspapers have long hated bloggers: we're tenacious and sharp and we bite back. They steal material from us and they resent us for our nimbleness and lack of debts. Quite rightly, the intelligent papers point out that we lack resources, time and reach too: we can't be all things to all people. Papers are the life-blood of democracy, though let's not forget that they're the mouthpieces of dictatorships too. But we aren't hostages in the newspapers' fight to continue lying, thieving and hacking. The legislation is pretty dumb on web-based news, but I'm not going to prison for breaching the new rules - though I conceivably might if I let someone else have a guest post on Plashing Vole. 

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".
For the papers to cry foul on behalf of us bloggers is just humbug. However, intelligent commentators are right to point out – as Emily Bell does – that the legislation is behaving as though 'the press' was a club of identical institutions like the 1940s, comprising owners, physical products, editors and professional journalists. It really isn't like that any more: these organisations exist, but they're surrounded by amorphous bodies: press agencies, bloggers, PR spoon-feeders, RSS streams, aggregators, re-Tweeters and more. The Press doesn't come with a homburg-and-Press-Card any longer. 

Say a spoof Twitter account said something notable and convincing but untrue about its subject. It gets reTweeted. A news agency picks it up, which makes it look credible. Then the newspaper websites propagate it. Google and co feed the story to everyone. Who's to blame? The anonymous satirist? The agency which didn't check properly? The newspapers which simply republished it? The bloggers and Tweeters who expanded the story's circulation exponentially? Who goes to prison? Just the newspaper because it made money from the story and had supposed 'editorial control'? Or all the links in the chain?

So I'm confused by this legislation. Its test of responsibility is a mish-mash of size, commercial model and editorial responsibility: it's not coherent in any way. 

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