Saturday, 8 December 2012

And what of the internet - post Leveson

Alison Gow; the editor of the Daily Post, in her Saturday 'feedback on the week in news' talks about the internet, and to paraphrase builds on this idea populated by the some in the media that somehow because the internet is not 'regulated' then neither should newspapers, and that Lord Justice Leveson 'missed an opportunity to at least open an important discussion.'

To start the Leveson Inquiry was an inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press and not the world wide web, and it can be said that the fact she is writing about it, as are many others, surely means Leveson has indeed opened and important discussion about the internet.

This is what Lord Justice Leveson had to say on the relevance of the internet to the inquiry in volume II chapter 7:

3.1 Many editors and commentators have argued that the burgeoning of the internet is likely to render irrelevant much of the work of the Inquiry even assuming that it has not already done so. If, for example, celebrity X’s privacy is violated online, then the metaphorical cat is well out of the bag, and there is no reason why open season should not exist in the printed media. A clear exemplification of that argument is the justification used by The Sun in relation to the Prince Harry photographs, discussed in Chapter 5.

3.2 In my view, this argument is flawed for two reasons. Putting to one side publications such as the Mail Online which bind themselves voluntarily to the Editors’ Code of Practice (and which is legitimately proud of the world-wide on line readership that it has built up), the internet does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones. Some have called it a ‘wild west’ but I would prefer to use the term ‘ethical vacuum’. This is not to say for one moment that everything on the internet is therefore unethical. That would be a gross mischaracterisation of the work of very many bloggers and websites which should rightly and fairly be characterised as valuable and professional. The point I am making is a more modest one, namely that the internet does not claim to operate by express ethical standards, so that bloggers and others may, if they choose, act with impunity.

3.3 The press, on the other hand, does claim to operate by and adhere to an ethical code of conduct. Publishers of newspapers will be (or, at least, are far more likely to be) far more heavily resourced than most, if not all, bloggers and websites that report news (as opposed to search engines that direct those on line to different sites). Newspapers, through whichever medium they are delivered, purport to offer a quality product in all senses of that term. Although in the light of the events leading to the setting up of this Inquiry and the evidence I have heard, the public is entitled to be sceptical about the true quality of parts of that product in certain sections of the press, the premise on which newspapers operate remains constant: that the Code will be adhered to, that within the bounds of natural human error printed facts whether in newsprint or online will be accurate, and that individual rights will be respected. In contrast, the internet does not function on this basis at all. People will not assume that what they read on the internet is trustworthy or that it carries any particular assurance or accuracy; it need be no more than one person’s view. There is none of the notional imprimatur or kitemark which comes from being the publisher of a respected broadsheet or, in its different style, an equally respected mass circulation tabloid.

3.4 The second reason largely flows from the first. There is a qualitative difference between photographs being available online and being displayed, or blazoned, on the front page of a newspaper such as The Sun. The fact of publication in a mass circulation newspaper multiplies and magnifies the intrusion, not simply because more people will be viewing the images, but also because more people will be talking about them. Thus, the fact of publication inflates the apparent newsworthiness of the photographs by placing them more firmly within the public domain and at the top of the news agenda. As Professor Baroness Onora O’Neill made clear [..], it is important:

“to recognise the extent to which exposure to media content is unchosen – particularly by children, those in institutional settings, and those in public places. Regulation should have regard to the realities of media penetration rather than assuming that it always reflects consumer choices.”

3.5 Ultimately, this is most decidedly not a debate about free speech. A newspaper’s right to publish what it chooses within the general law (whether or not it complies with the Editors’ Code) is not in question, although within a more robust regulatory framework the consequences of a breach of the Code, publication having occurred, might well be such as to have a deterrent effect. To turn this into a debate about free speech both misses the point and is in danger of creating the sort of moral relativism which has already been remarked on. This is, or at least should be, a debate about freedom with responsibility, and about an ethical press not doing something which it is technically quite able to do but decides not to do. This freedom (and where the editors choose to draw the line whether rightly or otherwise) was neatly encapsulated by the decisions taken in relation to Prince Harry and the Duchess of Cambridge.

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