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The PCC still want to regulate blogs (the Baroness responds)


9:05 am - November 19th 2009

by Sunny Hundal    


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In response to Unity’s letter and petition posted earlier this week on LibCon, the PCC’s new chair Baroness Peta Buscombe has already responded to me by email. I publish the full letter below and a response below that.

It’s worth emphasising that at this point we haven’t yet sent off the letter. You can still sign it on the earlier thread and make suggestions.

* * * * * *

18th November 2009
Dear Mr Hundal

Thank you for your letter about my apparent proposal to regulate the blogosphere. I know you are intending to send it to me on Friday, but – given that it is already being commented on – I thought I’d respond right away. It is useful to have the chance to clarify what I was saying to Ian Burrell.

My point to him (following on from I speech I gave on this very subject: http://www.pcc.org.uk/news/index.html?article=NjA0OA) was about the dangers of over-regulation, the misplaced desire that can be common to governments to seek to control areas of freedom. Blogging, as your letter rightly suggests, is a clear area where freedom of expression is absolutely paramount.

I have no desire to infringe on that. My point was that, as there is already pressure to increase regulation of the internet, it is important to make clear that this must not lead to some form of statutory interference. Rather, a system of self-regulation (such as exists by the PCC for newspapers) would be more appropriate, if any bloggers wished to go down that route.

I say “wish”, because any advance in this area would have to be consensual. Self-regulation is about collaboration between willing parties. The PCC is not in any way constituted to impose its views on the unwilling and cannot simply extend its remit to cover non-newspaper sites.

So, in the end, I think we do not have to much to disagree on here.

To your other point about standards within newspapers due to the PCC, I am afraid we do disagree entirely. The level of adherence to the Code of Practice across the industry is actually very good (although, as with any system, the adherence rate to the rules could always be better). And the PCC is also involved pre-publication to help ensure untrue or intrusive stories are not published.

This is achieved in a way that preserves freedom of expression (because editors co-operate with it, in contrast to the world of injunctions and super-injunctions). We approach people in vulnerable situations to help them to deal with presence of journalists that may be causing them distress. When complainants come to us, they generally feel that they get a good service (http://www.pcc.org.uk/news/index.html?article=NTk0OA).

Most often, corrections and apologies appear on the same page as, or further forward in the paper than, the original. The issue of online location of apologies is a legitimate question, and something the PCC will need to continue looking at.

Of course, they will be occasions when we get things wrong, and we should do all we can to get better. I have instituted a review of all of our systems to help ensure that our processes work, and can be improved.

With kind regards.
Peta Buscombe

* * * * * *

This isn’t my official response to the letter but a series of thoughts, which may be seen by the PCC and the Baroness anyway.

1. Your support The reasoning behind the letter drafted by Unity, and improved though various suggestions, was important because it laid down what many of us already think. I’m gratified so many across the political spectrum signed it despite knowing this is a partisan left-wing site. And we hope to keep this a non-partisan and broad issue that affects all bloggers. The huge response undoubtedly gave it a lot of prominence and forced the new PCC chair to respond before we’d even sent it off. So thanks for your support.

2. Statutory Interference The chair’s letter however highlights the problem. She says that there is already “pressure to increase regulation” and instead of “statutory interference” perhaps a system of self-regulation would work better. In other words: either you folks volunteer for self-regulation or government regulation is forthcoming.

This is why a letter outlining our stance and pointing out that interference from the PCC, backed by a threat of “statutory interference”, is still not wanted. Let the government try to regulate blogs by law and see how far that gets them. Attempts by some parts of the Tory blogosphere to try and play this threat down should be resisted for entirely this reason.

3. Ian Burrell Also worth pointing out that Ian Burrell of the Independent stands by the discussion he had and expands on why the issue is important in his response:

The response from bloggers coordinated at Liberal Conspiracy forms part of that, and is a well-argued contribution. With news being increasingly read online and bloggers wanting to be credited as sources of breaking news, as well as commentators, then I think it is understandable that the PCC is looking to see what it’s future role should look like. Any relationship would have to be voluntary and, judging by the initial reaction, there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for that. Nonetheless, it’s not inconceivable that some news based sites might in future see a value in working within the PCC umbrella.

But, as we pointed out, working under the PCC umbrella may even lead to standards slipping in many cases rather than being raised.

4. Knowing the internet And this is why: Matt Wardman has a deeper look at Baroness Buscombe’s speech. He says, quite rightly, that her political neutrality is under question and she misunderstands how the internet works in many ways.

How is someone like that even going to start grasping the (self) regulation of blogs? The threat of “statutory interference” is not good enough I’m afraid she’ll find that most bloggers would still be unwilling to sign up to the PCC code.

5. Not answering the question Unfortunately this is an example of how the PCC works. In her response to our letter Baroness Buscombe fails on answering the main contention of Unity’s letter.
I’ll let media commentator Roy Greenslade explain

However, one of the reasons I ran the Hundal-Unity letter at such length was because of the specific case they referred to: the complaint against the News of the World and its columnist Carole Malone for a piece she wrote on immigration.

The point, of course, was that the eventual print correction did not appear on the page on which Malone’s column is published. In my view, it was not therefore appropriately placed. That is a legitimate complaint about a failure of practice. Surely, if a columnist breaches the code, then the apology should go on the columnist’s page.

And the point made by Hundal-Unity therefore about bloggers making their corrections much more transparent is therefore valid, and not answered by Buscombe.

…which is why this covert attempt at land-grab by the PCC should be resisted by all of us.

You still have time to sign the letter. We’re going to send it by early next week with your names.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Liberal Conspiracy ,Media ,Westminster

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Reader comments


Well said Sunny.

The key point is number 2.

The modus operandi for the introduction of illiberal legislation is always the same.

Faux outrage- self regulation- legislation.

The resistance has to be early and absolutely unflinching. There is nothing to self- regulate except our freedom of speech.

Try to regulate the tides with a teaspoon.

The response by the PCC chair demonstrates several unfortunate misconceptions about how this interweb thingy operates. Even if they do seek to regulate it will fail. The world has moved on.

We write what we think because we like thinking and we like writing. Maybe that’s what scares them.

Where exactly is the “pressure to increase regulation” coming from, because I haven’t once heard *anyone* calling for it except the government and the PCC itself.

Even to accept a voluntary code is to legitimise the right to the State’s interference.

given that they have already responded to an interim draft, while it was still being developed collaboratively, I think we should note that and ask for a direct response to some questions noting that these were not covered and glossed over in the first reply

*Some of those were points in the previous letter, which could be put more directly ….

Does PCC chair agree that principles X, Y and Z which this group of bloggers all think important in their own work would be good practice for newspapers and magazines regulated by PCC? If so, will she join us in pressing those outlets who do not to do so, and will the PCC contact members directly to ask whether they will, or find out why not.

* But there is also their sense of high public confidence, in the reply, against the frustrations cited in the letter. It would be interesting to press for a clear answer on one key issue here.

– What number and proportion of PCC complaints have not been adjudicated because they are third party in each of the last few years?

What is the rationale for not adjudicating complaints against the code (which doesn’t mention any bar on 3rd party complaints), given that they state that public and the press should share an interest in accuracy and ethical standards?

And, specifically, what distinction or reason lies behind the PCC expressing some willingness (albeit rarely) to play a role in some rare third party complaints (such as Gately/Moir; perhaps also Malone’s free cars for illegal immigrants) while routinely refusing others as their established policy? This strikes many civic society voices as arbitrary, and leaves unclear whether or not the pcc does offer newspaper readers and the public an opportunity to challenge articles which breach its code, without needing to be the subject of them.

The response in the Moir/Gately case was a positive half-step forward, but I can see no reason why would the volume of complaints make a difference to the principle/policy?

Not overly concerned because any imposed regulation can’t possibly succeed – the Internet is not confined by state boundaries.

What concerns me is that someone is in position of authority and doesn’t understand how the thing she’s in charge of actually works.

Oh, and agreed with 4. to add/edit points into the letter brought up by the initial response.

Some excellent points there Sunder. We will take that into account…

Hmm..

And this is what the PCC actually does. It starts at the “Graham Dudman plays the man”:

http://www.bloggerheads.com/

And these people are supposed to be competent?


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