At last the government is taking the flaws in its Royal Charter seriously. If only the press was doing the same.
On Monday 25th March, the Justice Minister signaled he would be consulting with publishers on what to do about the now-infamous blogging problem. On Thursday 28th, we’ll be meeting to discuss how this problem can be solved.
The meeting is timely given events in the Lords yesterday, which showed that we still have a chance to lobby for the best possible settlement. A deliberate delay across the Easter recess will allow the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to consult with the newspaper industry over the next three weeks, and we want to ensure that small publishers also have their voices heard.
As things stand, a new amendment (131 BA) has been passed which excludes “a person who publishes a small scale blog” from the set of “relevant publishers” who could face exemplary damages if they snub the new regulator. That would significantly improve proposals we think are too vague. We’re not the only ones; legal expert Carl Gardner has cast a careful eye over the draft law and picked numerous holes.
But careful reading – indeed, reading of any kind – has not been apparent in other responses. Take Andrew Gilligan fuming in the Telegraph about this “fundamental rewriting of Britain’s constitutional liberties”. First, he’s angry that Hacked Off got the same access to politicians as press companies had since January; he calls them a “self-appointed campaign group” (as opposed to state-appointed) “funded by rich celebrities” (unlike the rich owners of newspapers). A front-page correction of the Guardian’s Milly Dowler story, he claims, would have stalled the scandal before it got off the ground (in fact, the Guardian did correct on its front page, and only based on information produced by the Leveson Report, which was already in full swing).
Strangest of all, he insists on characterising the “relevant publisher” as a new “class of citizen” with “less freedom of expression than all other citizens” – and on using the personal pronoun ‘he’ to refer to it. It’s almost as if Gilligan does not know that even the government’s hodgepodge and inadequate proposals explicitly exclude individual citizens.
In the face of this pressure, the government will scramble to protect small bloggers from the penalties imposed against the mainstream press. Their response may not entirely make sense – the amendment we mentioned earlier overlaps considerably with what we’ve already got – but it will be feverish.That’s why we need to look carefully at the questions involved. On Thursday, we’ll be discussing:
- Size: how should a ‘small scale blog’ be measured?
- Who’s a publisher: are the criteria adequately defined?
- Inclusion: what if small blogs want the protections of the regulator?
- Participation: how can we ensure that the consultation includes a wide variety of views?