Summary:

Weblogs and social channels not affiliated with newspapers can breathe a sigh of relief. Tweets and blogs don’t have enough heft to be considered ‘news’ media like print, says the judge leading recommendations to heighten UK ‘press’ standards.

Lord Justice Brian Leveson

The UK’s big inquiry in to the culture, practice and ethics of the “press” has recommended a new body to better self-regulate news media — but has overlooked blogs and social networks because they are neither popular nor newsy enough.

The result leaves large mainstream newspaper publishers, which are in decline, the focus of the proposed new standards enforcer — but appears to leave untouched the growing wave of online-only outlets that inquiry chair Lord Justice Leveson nevertheless believes often operate to even lower standards than newspapers.

Weblogs aren’t news, aren’t even popular

Beside the proprietors of several large newspapers, victims of press intrusion and other interested parties, the nine-month-long Leveson iniquiry heard from the publishers of the weblogs Holy Moly (1.6 million monthly visitors), Guido Fawkes (up to 100,000 daily readers), Popbitch (350,000 subscribers) and Huffington Post UK. His report also notes that many large newspapers now publish their own weblogs.

But Leveson’s report nevertheless uses a narrow definition to appear to dismiss the notion “weblogs” could ever produce newspaper-like content…

“Although the blogs cited here are read by very large numbers of people, it should not detract from the fact that most blogs are read by very few people.

“Indeed, most blogs are rarely read as news or factual, but as opinion and must be considered as such”.

In truth, “weblogs” nowadays can no longer be described as simply opinion journals, and are often regarded merely as content management systems for publishing news, opinion, gossip, high-quality investigative journalism and scurrilous defamation — all the equally excellent and embarrassing kinds of content which large news institutions are accused of committing.

Many publishers on weblog platforms are becoming — and have already become — very popular and influential, and will become only more so as print media wane. Most newspaper publishers also publish their own weblogs.

Leveson remains interested in weblogs elsewhere in his final report, but not in considering whether they should be regulated in the same way he is proposing of newspapers. Instead, he notes instances in which newspapers nowadays often report unverified stories by reporting what weblogs themselves are saying — a kind of blogging in print by proxy. It is the newspapers and not the blogs which Leveson is putting on alert.

‘Twitter too small to be news’

One of the biggest digital stories of the year has been the challenges posed by social media users naming alleged criminals and, prejudicing trials and defaming others — the same accusations levelled at many in the “press”. In his report, Leveson acknowledges:

“Although there is limited news provision in the terms that are relevant to this Inquiry on pure social networking sites, all social networks provide opportunities for individuals to disseminate and discuss news, information and comment.”

But he nevertheless contends:

“Despite their extraordinary growth, as with most blogs, in the main, few tweets or social network pages are read by very large numbers of people, most tweets are read by very few people.”

This overlooks not only the rapid explosion of news delivered “socially” by the same institutional publishers who are Leveson’s focus (The Guardian now has a very large Facebook audience) but also the massive disruptive effects threatened by amplification of amateurs’ own inter-personal social messaging.

One of several apparent contradictions in his report, Leveson later himself recants the tale of a Twitter user who “had posted on Twitter anticipating a small circulation to her followers but failing to take account of the ability to retweet and so reaching a far wider audience”. And he later acknowledges that social media do have enough heft to disrupt conventional news publishers:

“Newspapers in this country cannot be viewed as once they were, as being uniquely responsible for the delivery of news. They are not. Control over information which might have been possible in an earlier age can be defeated instantly on Twitter or any one of many other social media sites.”

So who regulates social media?

If weblogs and social networks are not to fall under the auspice of Lord Justice Leveson’s proposed new press self-regulating watchdog, how are they to be regulated? Using existing laws, some of which are adequate and some of which are struggling to keep pace, he suggests…

For example, internet services like Google, Facebook and Twitter have pledged to act in accordance with UK law, removing content where the law has judged it illegal.

But Leveson acknowledges not all is perfect vis-a-vis these platforms:

“They are, however, understandably unwilling to make decisions on whether content may or may not be illegal or to take decisions where there are grey areas in law.”

And that can also leave victims of defamation or intrusion aggrieved:

“In some cases, considerable damage may have been done to the subject of those allegations before a judgment has been reached and the defamatory content consequently removed.”

Social can regulate itself, the law can try keeping up

Leveson acknowledges that, if social media were newspapers, they would have to work to his proposed new regulation agency:

“Although social networking sites are not obviously in competition with newspapers for audience, revenue or advertising, they may be used to publish information that would not be able to be published by a newspaper in conformity with the standards set by self-regulation.”

But he says such platforms have in-built organic correction mechanisms of the kind the new body will have to build for itself:

“The instant nature of social networking also differentiates it from more traditional media. Rebuttals and denials of allegations can take place instantly, helping if not to kill a story at least to provide the subject of the story with a voice and make users aware that the veracity of the allegation or story may be in doubt.”

The dozens of politicians recently named on Twitter as potential child abusers might disagree, as the recent outcry over the Twitter naming of a former politician at the centre of a BBC Newsnight report would suggest.

But, whilst Leveson is cognicent of the many areas in which law is currently being tested to keep up with social, this was not the remit of his inquiry in to “press” standards.

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