When a few days ago I blogged that all these press laws would stop newspapers printing a story someone didn’t like – they might be too frightened in case big ‘exemplary fines’ literally close them down – a blogger tweeted me:
For some reason this blogger – like many – believed that the new press laws would not affect him. He thought while a national newspaper might be prevented from printing a story, he would still be able to write pretty much what he liked.
Today we now know that isn’t going to be the case. Although at first the Government said harsh new press regulation would not affect bloggers and individual’s websites, they have since beat a hasty retreat. These details will be revealed, we are told next week.
Unfortunately it appears this issue over internet bloggers has not been properly thought through – and this is why there is this sudden turnaround. In a nutshell, how can they say a newspaper website can’t print an expose but a blogger can? Ultimately you would simply transfer all those readers who go to national newspaper websites to the blogger revealing the stories MPs don’t want us to know instead.
As we all know the power of Twitter can be massive. A story that gains momentum on a blog, Twitter or Facebook could potentially reach more people than any national newspaper can.
A ‘kite mark’ for those that join the Royal Charter?
For this reason it’s a sure bet that bloggers will have to come under this press regulation. It might be those bloggers who sign up can proudly display a kite mark of trust – which means if you don’t sign up you could be seen as a less trustworthy blog.
There could be a cost to sign up – and if signed up and someone makes a complaint against you, under the rules as they are now you would have to foot legal bills to defend it (even if they lose.) It could mean bloggers will need to take out insurance – whatever, it opens a can of worms…
And if you don’t sign up to be included in the Royal Charter then if your blog receives a complaint, because you are not a member of the Royal Charter, you could be liable for exemplary damages.
The blogger fined £25,000
A few days ago we revealed how one blogger was recently fined £25,000 after using her blog to voice an opinion her local council did not agree with – and that was before this law was hurriedly rushed through Parliament.
That eye-watering sum would surely be enough to bankrupt many bloggers but if it were exemplary it could be even more. It might have been £100,000 or more. It is quite possible therefore any blogger writing something someone did not like could end up losing their home over it.
Many bloggers also think because their site’s server is in the US or hosted in some other country, their blog is safe. But not so if according to these new regulations it is aimed a UK audience. The Government has also said regulation could be limited to ‘news’ sites. But what is a news site exactly? Does that then cover someone who is just commenting on a story in the news (which at some point must be 99% of us…).
Ironically, the government has already said the BBC website (which is so dumbed down these days it looks and reads like a book for a six year-old) and Sky News will not be included.
But these huge fines (up to £1million if you are signed up to the Royal Charter) could spell the end for hundreds of other smaller publications.
Local newspapers at risk
Your local newspaper – the one that runs those campaigns to raise money for a local child with cancer to go abroad for life-saving treatment or backs your campaign to halt more building in your area – could not afford such a fine.
Local papers are struggling to continue. Having lost much advertising revenue, they are run on a shoe string and just don’t have the money.
No publication, however much it checks its copy and however smug it is and however good it thinks it is, can escape complaints. There will always be someone somewhere who isn’t happy. It will just need one person to start a complaint like this against a paper and it could go under – particularly as under the Royal Charter rules that paper will also have to foot a legal bill even if they are cleared of any wrongdoing.
On the question of newspapers, even the Guardian – which has campaigned for all this – has in its editorial today expressed concern about the fines clause. Take the MPs expenses story. As an editor you would have to accept that in running such a story, a complaint about it (and of course many MPs certainly did complain…) could shut you down. This is because the punishment for running that story might mean the sacrifice is that story is your last one.
The Government is saying this is not an attack on freedom of speech or freedom of the press but if everyone is in fear of being punished with fines like this, then surely it creates such fear that ultimately you will think better of publishing that exclusive (or blog post) after all.
Every trade or profession must have a body which deals with complaints. That body should have enough teeth that it is able to refer criminal wrong-doing to the Police, discipline companies and individuals it represents and have a form of redress for someone who has been treated wrongly.
There isn’t a national newspaper or magazine that doesn’t recognise this.
As I’ve pointed out before, strict criminal laws already govern us – it is illegal to hack a phone. Journalists have been arrested for hacking and if convicted face prison sentences, victims of phone hacking have already sued and won millions in compensation. Professional journalists negotiate laws every single day – privacy laws, bribery laws, defamation and libel laws, contempt of court laws – to name a few.
But this Royal Charter goes too far.
Unfortunately there is no going back. The genie – that is the dab of regulation backing this Royal Charter – can’t be put back in the bottle. It has already gone through Parliament.
All we can hope is that those big national papers – on whom the success of this Royal Charter depend – do boycott this Royal Charter.
They need to make a stand for all of us.