It’s not hard to protect the small press from courts

By Media Reform Coalition / Friday March 22, 2013 Read More
The New Statesman has just announced it will be boycotting the new press regulator because new provisions for exemplary damages in the Crime and Courts Bill “threatened to drag in personal blogs and social media accounts.” This is manifestedly untrue, unless you read the posturing of Guido Fawkes as evidence of a threat. As we made clear on Tuesday these amendments specifically include individual bloggers and would not apply to social media accounts. Not sure? Hugh Tomlinson QC of Inforrm and Hacked Off has provided us with a draft copy of relevant sections of the Bill which has been “highlighted for bloggers” and which you can download here. It makes clear that individual bloggers are not included, and lists a number of specific exemptions. It also says that courts must take into account “whether membership of an approved regulator was available to the defendant at the material time” and, if it was available, “the reasons for the defendant not being a member”. Nevertheless, there remain issues. Although the holes in these rules aren’t quite wide enough to drive a car through, they are present, and freedom of speech is too important to leave open to doubt. But it’s worth remembering two things. Firstly, the press and government still seperately possess the power to protect bloggers and small websites from exemplary damages. Secondly, we told them how to do it way back in 2011. In our Ethics Briefing Paper, published in November that year, we suggested an independent News Publishing Commission to replace the PCC. We explained:

All publications are eligible for membership of and representation by, the Commission. All publications registered with the Commission would be eligible for VAT exemption. Any organisation withdrawing from the Commission would lose their VAT exemption. 

So far, so carrot and stick. But more importantly:

Organisations with a turnover of less than £50,000 (i.e. not VAT registered) would be eligible for free associate membership of the Commission. They would be able to make use of the Ombudsman’s services and their members would be eligible to stand for tribunal panels and as members of the commission board.

 The VAT threshold has now risen to £77,000, but the principle remains the same. In our suggestion, news organisations subsidised via a VAT exemption would in turn subsidise protection for smaller organisations. In the fast-moving whirl of political events we can’t expect our perfect solution to be the one that ends up chosen, but the point is simple: there is a very effective way to allow small publications to enjoy the protection of a regulator, and there is already a simple framework for distinguishing ‘small’ from ‘big. Left Foot Forward has suggested a number of similar alternatives, including:
  • Exempting any media outlet which meets the definition of a small or medium sized enterprise as defined in Sections 382 and 465 of the Companies Act 2006 – i.e. those companies which have a turnover of less than £6.5 million.
  • Other lower thresholds involving turnover are also in play. A number of left-wing bloggers have suggested the figure of £250,000 when lobbying in Westminster yesterday.
  • Non-profit organisations could be excluded
(And much, much more!) In the meantime, Liberal Conspiracy and Hacked Off have been lobbying hard for specific exemptions under the law:

Hacked Off has written to the three main political parties proposing a new amendment to the Crime and Courts Bill to exclude all non-profit publishers from the statute underpinning the Royal Charter for press self-regulation. [HO]

Whatever happens, we don’t do bloggers any favours if we pretend that this was all a foregone conclusion, that this is just what happens when the clunking fist of government tries to regulate the internet. We need any new regulators and the legal framework which supports them to specifically distinguish small and nonprofit news outlets from their bigger brethren, whose lobbying power and vast financial reserves allowed phone hacking to go unchecked for so long – and we must ensure they are allowed to enjoy the protections that Fleet Street has been fighting so hard to reject.