British MPs will vote on Monday on what to do about the press.
Three months after Lord Justice Leveson published his huge report on the conduct of newspapers, everyone is still arguing over how to implement the recommendations.
In the meantime, a panel looked at how Scotland could bring in regulation of the press, whether or not the UK did.
And on Friday, they suggested mandatory regulation to all papers…and more. The proposals are so broad, they could apply to everything from Twitter to press releases. As well as a regulator of the papers and media, there would be a government-appointed “recognition commissioner” to make sure the regulator meets the Leveson principles.
Currently, there are two speeds of freedom of speech: one that applies to the press and one to everyone else. This isn’t a fact by virtue of how fast the public can tweet or the perception that the press acts with impunity. The speed difference comes from self-regulation, that now much-derided concept.
Lord Justice Leveson pointed out that self-regulation had failed. But he acknowledged that anyone could “report” with a Twitter account.
So Lord McCluskey, in his effort to create a Scottish version of Leveson, said what some American journalism thinkers already do: that anyone considered to be publishing will be automatically covered by a Scottish press bill. Every “significant news publisher” would be regulated with no opt out or volunteer aspect.
Those with Twitter accounts or other social media outlets self-regulate daily. But there, the “self” is entirely individual and not subject to any institutional, professional or commercial over-arching “self”.
The free speech of trained reporters is, in fact, less free than that of the citizen journalists who are replacing them, by virtue of their education, employment requirements and professional codes to balance a “need to know” against, for example, the naming of a rape victim.
Although an amateur would be prosecuted for identifying a victim, like any professional reporter, it would be after the fact. And, it could be argued, there is considerably less danger in it happening from a trained court reporter.
The two speeds of free speech are being brought under one speed camera because the autobahn free-for-all of social media scares everyone. But I’d rather the free-for-all than a speed bump measure so ill-conceived that it takes out society’s suspension when we go over it.
British broadcasters such as the BBC deserve a great deal of the blame for framing the debate as an all-or-nothing approach, by only putting on disgraced hacks and executives of a paper closed because of its disgrace, to represent this profession.
It is the thousands of hard-working, over-stretched local reporters whose voices have never been heard in this debate, not by Leveson, certainly not by McCluskey, and who ultimately will be the most affected by press regulation.
Councils already bend over backwards to silence local papers and bloggers and new laws will be used even more to ensure the only news the public gets about local authorities is the polished newsletters that go through our doors.
Conveniently, those newsletters will be subject to the same new regulation as well.
Press releases, even hidden behind the army of anonymous “spokespeople” will be subject to regulation. Think that’s a stretch? The more a press release, penned by a former hack, gets run in print or online nearly verbatim, the organisation behind that release becomes a “significant news publisher”.
Further still, McCluskey references the “Royal Charter” proposals by Prime Minister David Cameron that defines a “relevant publisher” as”(a) a person (other than a broadcaster) who publishes in the United Kingdom: a newspaper or magazine containing news-related material, or (b) a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a newspaper or magazine)”. That means the website for the proposed “recognition commissioner” overseeing the regulator of Scottish “publishers” will contain “news-related material” and can itself be hauled in front of, well, the recognition commissioner.
If McCluskey wants everyone to be automatically be covered, then it applies to everyone: every paper, website, tweet, Scottish Government press release, party political pamphlet, and even judicial blog.
Because any solitary tweet can go around the world, it is significant.
The “self” regulation of each individual has been rejected by McCluskey, not just corporate self-regulation of print media. Those in power who think this is finally the chance to muzzle the dead-tree press may quickly find that their own voices are silenced as well. And then you just have a dead end, for everybody.