Last Thursday, April 11th, the Media Reform Coalition were invited to take part in one of three stakeholder discussions at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). All of these meetings concerned the amendments to the Crime and Courts (C&C) Bill which will affect online journalists and small publishers. While they requested that anything said by participants was under Chatham House Rules (i.e. shouldn’t be attributed to any individual), we were told we could report on what was said by the representatives from DCMS itself. This blog summarises what was discussed and is intended to add some transparency to their consultation process.
(N.B. Some prior knowledge of the legal situation is assumed – if you want to get up to speed try reading our briefing document “Small publishers, online journalism and the new system of press regulation”.)
We were invited after contacting DCMS ourselves about the consultation we’ve been running for bloggers and small publishers, and were there primarily to report back on the results. It wasn’t clear on what basis other invitations were made, but it is our understanding that DCMS are planning to publish a list of attendees once they have everyone’s permission to do so.
The meeting was useful in terms of clarifying the intentions of the C&C Bill amendments. It was made clear that this system is intended to cover everyone that is currently covered by the PCC – that is, all newspapers including local independent ones that may have relatively low turnovers. At the same time, they want to make provisions for online-only content producers, not least to make sure that, should a major newspaper go entirely online in the not too distant future, they wouldn’t be able to duck regulation. When questioned about the definition of a ‘newspaper’ they couldn’t give a clear answer – Tower Hamlets council newsletter is not one, apparently, while the Brixton blog’s occasional print editions might be. There was some inconsistency in their approaches to different media – on the one hand, they stressed the different status given to information received on different platforms, and on the other recognised the need to be ‘platform blind’ in an era of convergence.
It was acknowledged that the amendment process so far has been highly irregular, and there may be more scope for changing the Bill than would ordinarily be the case. However, they did say that the likelihood is that changes will focus on the definition of a “small-scale blog”. In terms of defining size online it seemed that they were leaning towards a turnover threshold as the only unambiguous measure we have at this point. Using the Small Companies definition in the Companies Act was seen as problematic, though they said they would get back to us with the specific problems they had.
One point we wanted to emphasise was the strong support we found in our consultation for access to the benefits of the regulator for all. As things stand, an organisation or blog that joins the regulator and abides by its code but is not a “relevant publisher” will not receive the costs protections it provides. In our consultation, 80% of respondents (excluding ‘don’t knows’) wanted to have access to the benefits of the regulator. The DCMS spokespeople said this was not the message they had received from other stakeholders but seemed to take this information on board, particularly as others at the meeting echoed this point of view.
Other points raised in the discussion were:
– forums are meant to be exempt, although a multi purpose site with both news and forums could potentially see the news part included. The language used to define ‘moderation’ (as distinct from editing) has been taken directly from a similar clause in the Defamation Bill.
– they believe that ‘in the course of a business’ has a clear legal definition but said they would clarify this in writing
– guest blogs and occasional contributors are not meant to be caught by ‘multiple authors’
DCMS will now be advising Maria Miller who will develop the government’s position on what should replace the place-holding amendment exempting a “small-scale blog”. The Bill returns to the Commons on April 23rd and is scheduled for the Lords on the same day for the “ping-pong” phase where it bounces between the two houses until the Bill is finalised. This process is expected to be complete by the time the Parliamentary session ends on April 28th.
If anyone else who was present at the meeting wishes to add anything, please comment underneath and we will incorporate any substantive points into this blog.