This blog has not expected to be proved right so quickly on press regulation, but that’s what happened today. At the end of last year, when the Leveson commission published its report into the standards and regulation of the press, this website observed, while the questions of whether the press could really be trusted to regulate itself, or whether the intervention of a regulator would kill the free press, were outside its scope, that the press was probably unregulatable.
The geographical extent of British press regulation would bump up against the fact that many news sources were based abroad, and the practical extent would discover that the digital era has made everyone a journalist. Traditional newspapers and magazines are often less widely read than blogs and websites. Stephen Fry has more than 5 million followers on Twitter, for example.
And so it has proved. The cross-party talks, on again/off again over the past few days, reached a conclusion with the proposal to regulate the press via a royal charter. The theory is that this is less intrusive to the freedom of the press than a law, but given that certain aspects of the charter will be framed in law, that is a rather hollow distinction. (Supporters of a British republic might comment on the fact that the press is to be regulated by the Privy Council, appointed by the Queen, rather than by the elected House of Commons, but that is another out-of-scope subject.)
That charter aims to govern the dissemination of news and news-related material, defined as:
(a) news or information about current affairs,
(b) opinion about matters relating to the news or current affairs, or
(c) gossip about celebrities, other public figures or other persons in the news.
This covers newspapers, obviously, but it goes much further. This website might be covered, as might its Twitter feed, or even your author’s Facebook page (amid the cute baby stories, there are complaints about the news). The royal charter would thus regulate not the press but the whole nation. As an attempt to regulate the press in a free society, it has failed.
¤ ¤ ¤
The government has responded to this obvious absurdity by publishing its own definition of who is and is not caught. Business websites, Twitter and Facebook would escape, voiding some of the fears expressed above, but so do specialist publishers and charities. If the actions of the regulator actually prevent journalists from doing what they want, they can simply rebadge themselves as something else, exempt from regulation. Again, the attempt at regulation has failed.