Books written by Ray Sullivan

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Read All About It, Blog and Be Damned

There's been a bit of a furore in the UK over the last few years over the way that our national newspapers have acted when investigating stories they deem to be in the public interest.  Some of the actions have been reprehensible by any measure, such as not only hacking into the voicemail of a missing girl's mobile phone, but to empty it when it had become full so that other messages could be intercepted.  Unfortunately, in every sense of the word, the girl had been murdered before the hacking event but the clearing of the voicemail account gave her parents false hope that she was alive and checking her phone, whilst distracting the police in their enquiries.

There have also been numerous examples where prominent politicians and celebrities have had their phone voicemail accounts illegally hacked and the contents used to spread scandalous gossip about them.  Even if the gossip was true, the invasion of privacy was deemed unacceptable.  Several persons, including senior newspaper personnel, have been imprisoned on the back of these events and many newspapers have made extremely large payments in compensation.  As a result of all of this the UK has had the pleasure of funding an extremely expensive public enquiry into press standards.  It turns out that they didn't have any, or if they did, they hid them well.

Following the enquiry came the inevitable call for legislation and tighter regulation of the press.  Did I forget to mention the hacking was illegal and that people have been imprisoned for breaking the law?  It does appear that some of our police have been in the pockets of some of the newspapers, which makes enforcing the law more problematical, however such collusion is also against the law.  Probably we have had enough laws and potential penalties all along, it's just using them that seems to have been the issue.

Anyway, over-reaction is normal when the issues are extreme, and let's face it, the newspapers have acted with apparent impunity over the years so it's natural that those who have been affected by their intrusion should want something more than what we already had, given that it didn't seem to act as a deterrent at the time.

So over the last few weeks there's been a lot of rumbling over a new set of rules for the press and banter as to whether it should be enshrined in law - you can't have too many laws to break, it seems - and whether Her Majesty should enshrine the code of conduct in a Royal Charter.  Of course the politicians have become involved and there has been a lot of foot stamping going on, the end result of which is the new code of conduct being suggested by parliament, administered by a truly independent regulator who has the right to impose fines of up to £1 million.  The newspaper jury is out at the moment as the new rules, if they sign up for them, provide onerous responsibilities on them.

They may also impose these rules on internet based publications and some professional bloggers think that it may apply to them.  Where the bloggers are venturing into the murky waters of politics and where they are commenting on individuals they may find themselves sailing very close to the libel rules which, by the way, are also covered by significant existing legislation.  Some of the bloggers are seriously thinking that the risks of being accused of breaking the new rules would expose them to unacceptably high fines by the regulator.

Others disagree.  The government has said that three tests need to be applied and passed before the new rules can be applied.  The first test is that the publisher should be publishing news-related material.  Pretty vague, depending on how you define publisher and, in this internet world of recycled stories, what constitutes news-related material.

The second test is whether or not the material is written by a range of authors.  I'm starting to feel a little easier here unless the 'range of authors' includes some of my alter egos that sometimes write a guest blog for me.  For example, I have had an anonymous Apple devotee report on Apple developments, and B L O'Feld has held the occasional interview but the interviewer was last seen disappearing into the Thames.  But of course many blogs, and this one is no exception, takes material from other blogs and news reports and recycles them in a new package, maybe with a new spin - does that mean a range of authors for the source material?

The third test is that the material has to be subject to editorial control.  Now I really can start to breathe easier - most of you must have guessed that I don't even proof read what I write, let alone run a spell check over it.  The odds of anyone determining what I should write is almost infinitely minuscule.

But blog sites like the Huffington Post, that started out like this blog as a one person effort but did it better, I guess, does constitute an edited publication so could be subject to the new rules.  I suspect this is an unintended side product of the new rules - and one that probably won't serve any useful purpose as sites like the Huff collate news and post it up there for us all to read.

The reality of all of this, though, is that the intended recipients of the new rules are on borrowed time anyway.  Most in the journalism industry don't expect traditional newspapers to be sold on the high street for much longer.  All of the major newspapers are posting large amounts of their content on-line, sometimes in abridged format for free with the meat and two veg versions on a subscription basis.  News providers in the future may make their money through advertising revenues alone - unlikely given the state of the advertising industry right now - or through subscription, perhaps a combination.  They'll have to be good to beat the free versions available, though, and legal to boot.  Royal Charter of not.

I'm still obliged to keep to the truth when I write up my blog, and I'm certainly not entitled to defame anyone - after all, the laws that were enough to regulate the press in the past, even if they weren't applied assiduously enough, still apply.  But I'm not going to have to stop blogging due to these rules.  I hope the same doesn't apply to the likes of the Huff, after all, as far as I know, they never hacked anyone's voicemail.


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