Should media regulations also include social media?

If, as suggested, Lord Leveson presents his report on his seemingly endless inquiry into print press standards in the UK to prime minister David Cameron, expect days and weeks of media hysteria. The rhetoric is already filling endless pages of editorials and features defending press freedom from any potential state intervention.

Nobody really knows what Leveson will suggest. There have been pre-emptive counter proposals of stronger self-regulation, third-party regulation with lawyers supervising and full-on regulation backed by legislation.

One thing I don't expect based on Leveson's previous blurted-out opinions during testimony, is that his proposals will be based in the 21st century. I see no grasping of the concept that social media is now as much a part of the media landscape as newspapers.


The whole inquiry was set up because of dodgy practices by a handful of reporters at some large newspapers. Some magazines get a bit trashy with gossip, but they're rarely ever in as much trouble as newspapers seem to court.

But Twitter and Facebook cause just as much trouble, and get held to legal standards even beyond those of tradition media - as anyone arrested for a Facebook post will be able to attest.

You can be a reporter just with Twitter now, so what do you do with journalists who are not part of newspapers? Are they beyond new regulations? Are the websites belonging to newspapers held to the same standard of reporting? Are independent blogs? What about the publications from local authorities or police or health boards produced by public relations teams? Are those publications exempt?

Of course, we don't class PR newsletters or Facebook to the high-minded journalism standards that everyone professes to want in the UK.

But people don't want that. A few hundred thousand readers do, but many million more want the celebrity trash that was obtained through phone hacking. The moral code changes to suit the story and the situation - and that's the position of the public even more than the reporters.

That initial anger against News International in July 2011 for hacking the phone of a murdered schoolgirl is long gone beyond a core keeping it alive. Advertisers returned and readers returned. Those ordinary readers were the ones who tweeted the name of Lord McAlphine for false abuse claims.

The BBC got in trouble for implying his identity, but it was the Twitterati who named him, so do you hold the broadcast/print media to one standard and the social media to another?

I want a recognition of what reporters do, and for us to hold ourselves to a high standard.

But the lines of journalism are so blurred today and Leveson's inquiry so obsessed with past decades, that he can't hope to define what journalism is, who does it, or what rules there can be in the 21st century.

The danger of that is to further confuse a future for British reportage.

But there's also a risk that other countries will look to new rules as proof that you can clamp down on reporters. We already devalue their lives in conflicts around the planet. They are openly targeted in war zones and the drug battles of Mexico.

They are not held as sacred paragons of truth or virtue and important members of civil society. We talk about the importance of journalism, but we devalue it constantly, both through murder in some parts of the planet, and consumption of press releases and celebrity fluff the world over.

Leveson might hold up a certain value of journalism in his report, but expect it to be largely critical, of focusing on the flaws of national newspapers. It will be unlikely to ascribe value to local papers that do the hard work of reporting mundane meetings, or provide ideas on how they can survive circulation declines.

It will be unlikely to recognise how social media has changed how journalism works and is produced, or even the technology that has moved far beyond hacking of mobile phones.

Maybe I'll be surprised by the Leveson report. But I expect it will be more likely the same debate as has been going on for years on press intrusion and behaviour. The world is moving faster than media scandals, and much faster than inquiries into the lives damaged by those scandals

Updated Date: Nov 28, 2012 09:42 AM

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