Published on 30 Nov 2012 Sections

Why Leveson had a reason to dodge internet regulation

Only 12 pages in the 2,000-page Leveson report deal with the internet, triggering criticism that his recommendations are outdated. But is the 63-year-old actually a trail-blazer?

“Reading the 2,000 pages, it was almost as if the world wide web never happened,” The Independent noted in an online editorial.

“It seems strange to respond by designing a system which does very little to address new media,” John Whittingdale, the Conservative chairman of the culture, media and sport select committee, said in The Telegraph online. “It’s a system that is designed for the media of 20 years ago.”

By drawing a distinction between web and print news, 63-year-old Lord Justice Leveson may even undermine any future system of press regulation, some academics complained.

“The horse hasn’t just bolted – there’s a whole new horse,” David Banks, author of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists, told The Guardian online. “By ignoring the internet, it’s missing an opportunity.”

Meaningless rhetoric?

Today’s criticisms are not unique. Newspapers at the inquiry argued that stricter regulation of the press would be meaningless without greater controls of the internet.

But Lord Justice Leveson decided it was virtually impossible to regulate a global medium with no central authority and differing regulatory systems worldwide. He cited the nude pictures of Prince Harry and the Duchess of Cambridge first published online in the US and France respectively as an example.

“It is clear that the enforcement of law and regulation online is problematic,” Lord Leveson said at the end of his inquiry into press ethics – ethics he decided were not binding in the online world.

Ethical vacuum

The “internet does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones. Some have called it a ‘wild west’ but I would prefer to use the term ‘ethical vacuum’,” Lord Leveson wrote.

He went on to say that the internet “does not claim to operate by express ethical standards, so that bloggers and others may, if they choose, act with impunity.”

Lord Leveson also noted a difference between viewing photos online versus on the front page of a national newspaper. “People will not assume that what they read on the internet is trustworthy or that it carries any particular assurance or accuracy,” he said.

All things considered, he recommended newspapers be more heavily regulated than the internet where parental controls could, to some extent, limit what children view online, unlike newspapers or magazines displayed in shops.

It is a subtle and unusual position in a sea of contrarians and critics, but Justice Leveson’s approach found some support – including, unsurprisingly, online. Political bloggers, including Sunny Hundai of Liberal Conspiracy, argue Lord Leveson did absolutely the right thing by not focusing on social media.

Facing ridicule

“Firstly, and obviously, it wasn’t in the remit. Secondly, it’s a topic he doesn’t know much about and if he had tried to offer suggestions on regulation, he would have faced much more ridicule. It would have backfired massively,” Sunny Hundai blogged.

Lord Justice Leveson was, of course, also aware that his recommendations would not have any influence on court cases where web commentators have hurled racial abuse at footballers, for example, or tweeted libellous comments. Those cases are already subject to the laws of the UK or the country where the unlawful activity transpired.

“The new Leveson regime may change the way the press relates to readers and introduce a tougher regulation regime, but it will do nothing about bad behaviour on the web,” the Mirror online reported today.

But as some political bloggers and media commentators pointed out, that was never Justice Leveson’s remit.

“Perhaps five or 10 years down the line, we will have to have another inquiry about that,” the Mirror added.

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