Saturday, 20 April 2013

Protecting the public AND current affairs publishers

The Leveson inquiry ended with some fairly common sense suggestions to solve a problem. The problem? Large organisations that are responsible for delivering news to the country abusing their privilege and position, at the detriment not only of the reputation of individuals, but also of their privacy, and even of truth in general.

People opposed it, but they were fighting dirty. Referring constantly to hacking and libel meant they could frame the discussion as if laws already exist to cover all of the ills that the press and media deal in on a daily basis. They don't, and hacking and libel only just scratches the surface.

But we've now worked ourselves in to a sub-optimal situation, because we have focused too hard on making the tabloids pay for the years, decades, of wrong doing without adequate recompense for those wronged. In doing so we've framed the regulation debate around physical size, financial resource. This was never what Leveson set out to do, the report concerned itself with culture, with organisations being too powerful to control, or feeling that they were above (or allowed to go below) ethical standards in the name of "public interest", and how to help those who have influence over public discourse act more responsibly with that kind of level of outreach.

How much money they take in the process, or how many people they employ doesn't really come in to it

So how should this be approached to be more robust and ultimately more future proof? Well...

  1. First we need to be serious about who a 'relevant publisher' is. We're talking about current affairs, so anyone who posts stuff about current affairs (outside of the exemptions that already are defined before the amendement linked to above) should be defined as a "relevant publisher". This means The Daily Mail, the Mail Online, Huffington Post, your local Guardian, Liberal Conspiracy, Guido Fawkes, Conservative Home, Labourlist, Lib Dem Voice, Comment is Free, Hyper-local blogs, Stephen Fry's blog (if and when he talks about current affairs), Iain Dale's blog, Mark Pack's blog, my blog, your twitter account. Yes all the way from the top to the bottom, we are relevant publishers of current affairs material.

    No "single author" nonsense, no "micro-business", no "in the course of a business"
  2. Then we need to say that a relevant publisher needs to have a means of recording their influence. This is easy, you have unique pageviews in analytics packages, followers in twitter, papers themselves have circulation figures
  3. An industry standard should be developed that tries to create an adequate level at which you become "influential" and thus at risk of causing someone or some people harm through your actions. We have to accept that what makes you small or big is not how much you blog or how much money you make, it's whether you invading someone's privacy has the potential to become something larger. All breaches are wrong, but the point of regulation is to say that there are those that know the *effects* of their actions will have more impact on the wronged party.
  4. Anyone should be able to submit through an easy and instantaneous system some stats about their "influence" and get some indication of whether they are over or close to that standard.
  5. All publishers should have a grace period that makes them exempt from the higher damages system. Not publications, but publishers...enough time to find their feet. This should ensure no-one feels like they have to understand everything before they get started blogging or tweeting...they're not likely going to realise there are laws to understand anyway at such an early stage.
  6. Anyone that is a relevant publisher should be able to join a regulator to get the access to arbitration, to get the advice and guidance that the regulator offers, and frameworks for complaints procedures

There are still issues here about how and how much it costs to join a regulator, but the point should be that we are saying people need to be ready to take responsibility for their words and the actions taken to publish those words, they should be open to quick corrections/take downs and as-prominent apologies to clarify, they should want to decide conflict at a level that is less costly to all parties. If they don't, then they will accept that their option is to risk court and higher damages for that bravado.

This should never depend on income, employee hours, or any other measure that isn't related to how easily your publication will be seen by others. This may not be the easiest route, but given the easiest route creates loopholes that can leave individuals wronged without the easier route that is being created, isn't it a useless route that is unfit for purpose?