Lord Justice Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report


by Sunny Hundal    
9:30 am - November 30th 2012

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Lord Justice Leveson’s report has attracted criticism from some who say only one page out of 2000 is dedicated to ‘The relevance of the internet’ (pg 736).

I think such criticism is misplaced. He did absolutely the right thing by not focusing much on the internet.

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.

Third, Lord Justice Leveson is actually much more nuanced than press reports suggest. He writes that the internet works within an ‘ethical vacuum’, but this too has been misinterpreted. He clarifies this:

This is not to say for one moment that everything on the internet is therefore unethical. That would be a gross mischaracterisation of the work of very many bloggers and websites which should rightly and fairly be characterised as valuable and professional. The point I am making is a more modest one, namely that the internet does not claim to operate by express ethical standards, so that bloggers and others may, if they choose, act with impunity.

The press, on the other hand, does claim to operate by and adhere to an ethical code of conduct. Publishers of newspapers will be (or, at least, are far more likely to be) far more heavily resourced than most, if not all, bloggers and websites that report news (as opposed to search engines that direct those on line to different sites).

This is absolutely right, and I fully agree with it.

David Banks tells the Guardian: “Leveson is referred to as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and by ignoring the internet, it’s missing an opportunity.” – but there couldn’t conceivably be any regulation that Lord Justice Leveson could demand of bloggers.

I’m not opposed to a voluntary code of conduct that blog editors could sign up to. There could even be a kitemark that blogs could display to signal this to readers. But this wasn’t within his remit and a new regulatory body could easily draw this up if it so wished. In fact, British bloggers could draw up such a code themselves. There was no reason for the Leveson report to interfere.

Lastly, there is criticism that the internet itself makes press regulation obsolete. I don’t agree with it and the Leveson report addresses this too:

In my view, this argument is flawed for two reasons. Putting to one side publications such as the Mail Online which bind themselves voluntarily to the Editors’ Code of Practice (and which is legitimately proud of the world-wide on line readership that it has built up), the internet does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones.

This then refers to the earlier point about an ‘ethical vacuum’, and Lord Justice Leveson rightly says that it would be impossible to get regulation going on the internet. But that doesn’t make press regulation redundant.

The second reason largely flows from the first. There is a qualitative difference between photographs being available online and being displayed, or blazoned, on the front page of a newspaper such as The Sun. The fact of publication in a mass circulation newspaper multiplies and magnifies the intrusion, not simply because more people will be viewing the images, but also because more people will be talking about them.

Or to put it another way – the front page of Reddit doesn’t break stories about Westminster policy proposals or scandals like the Daily Mail or The Guardian. The newspapers have diminished power but they are still very powerful in their own right. And a lot of BBC News is driven by the press agenda, which strengthens their influence.

The internet has eaten away at newspaper sales and the rise of social media makes it harder for newspapers to push lies. But for some it also means their stories go further as people share that information. Arguably, the internet has strengthened newspaper brands (especially that of the Guardian and the Mail) than diminished their power.

Mark Twain’s famous quote, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” applies even more with the internet. In that sense the internet makes the Leveson report even more relevant and necessary.

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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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Reader comments


“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”

The inspiration behind Sunny’s headlines?

The internet is a whole different ball game. The daily press can feed the internet but it can’t compete with the sheer speed of the internet and the internet will stay lawless unless draconian censorship technology is applied, as in China and Iran.

Btw I easily found the blogged “list” of alleged Conservative paedophiles on the internet and did absolutely nothing to increase the circulation either through blogging or by emails retailing gossip to friends.

As said before, the list instantly reminded me of the smearing techniques in the early 1950s of Senator Joe McCarthy, who would claim in a press conference to have lists in his pocket of Communists and Communist sympathisers embedded in high places. That was enough to ruin many lives. We now owe much to Sam Wanamaker who sought refuge in Britain:
http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/about-us/history-of-the-globe/rebuilding-the-globe

3. Chaise Guevara

@ 1

A lie can travel halfway around the internet while the truth is still logging into Twitter.

Hi Sunny, although I’m quoted in one of those links I do agree that Leveson is more subtle than he’s given credit for, and his ‘ethical vacuum’ comment is strictly speaking correct. I also agree that it was outside his remit, and not his job to ‘regulate the internet’ (a phrase that itself demonstrates an ignorance of the difference between a platform and an industry, i.e. newspapers).

For all the hyperbole about the ability to publish online, the press still has a unique – albeit diminishing – power: mainly around access, and influence. We might all be able to read great reporting on Twitter, but ultimately the powerful pay more attention to what newspapers say, rightly or wrongly. Leveson’s report recognises that, doesn’t exclude web *publications* from regulation, but does draw an interesting line between organisations and *individuals* which again ultimately comes down to power: if I have the power of money, staff, and ‘stable audience’, then I may be subject to regulation. If I do not have those things, then I am not.

In other words, he doesn’t seek to regulate the internet, and he shouldn’t.

So your arguments are:

1) That the internet shouldn’t have been part of the remit, because it wasn’t part of the remit.

2) The internet shouldn’t have been part of the remit because the person tasked to investigate was ignorant.

3) As long as people don’t bother claiming to be ethical, they can do whatever they want – i.e., the only real issue with the press is hypocrisy.

4) That ‘Westminster’ (and btw, there are other categories of news!) stories don’t break on the internet, even though they regularly break on Twitter or indeed on political blogs (though presumably, given your stance here, never on Liberal Conspiracy).

Neat.

6. Chaise Guevara

@ 5 Martin

I don’t see your problem with (1) or (2). He had a job to do. Presenting a close textual analysis of Madonna lyrics wasn’t part of his remit either; is he negligent for not explaining the influence of postmodernism on Material Girl? And why on earth are you apparently annoyed by the idea that someone tasked to investigate something should have some expertise in the relevant field?

I also think you’re missing the point with (4), or rather the OP has explained himself poorly. I suspect “break” should read “reach the attention of the general public”. It’s still not 100% true, but a lot of stories still only gain wings when the press or TV picks them up.

Agree with you on (3). It’s specious. I don’t think papers should be allowed to keep phone-hacking the families of murder victims as long as they don’t display some ethical kitemark, and nor should blogs.

Arguably, the internet has strengthened newspaper brands (especially that of the Guardian and the Mail) than diminished their power.

Yup, has it increased the money they make though?

“I don’t see your problem with (1) or (2). He had a job to do. Presenting a close textual analysis of Madonna lyrics wasn’t part of his remit either”

Umm, yes, but should it have been? No one thinks it makes sense to include a textual analysis of Madonna lyrics in a report that considers the freedom of press. Many people think that presenting an analysis of Internet publications – such as blogs or news aggregators – should have been quite relevant for considering what the freedom of press means (“the press” nowadays being more a commercial and non-commercial industry rather than an object involving ink and screws).

Just consider the BBC and the senior conservative politician that was rumored to be a pedophile. Big story relevant for this consideration, even without the actual “press” really being involved.

the internet does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards

But this doesn’t really mean anything. “The internet” isn’t an entity, or a group of entities or anything like – it’s a series of tubes a medium of communication.

Let’s take the Guardian – an article by Polly Toynbee appears in the print version, a response to that article then gets published online on Comment Is Free, and then the author of that response gets into a discussion with Toynbee on Twitter. Which bit of that is “press”, which bit is “internet”?

10. Chaise Guevara

@ 8 pjt

I accept that maybe it should have been part of the remit. What I’m saying is that, given that it wasn’t part of the remit, it’s odd to criticise him for doing what he was meant to do. And had it been part of the remit then you would have wanted someone with expertise involved.

11. Churm Rincewind

@5 Martin

You say that Sunny says: “The internet shouldn’t have been part of the remit, because it wasn’t part of the remit.” No, Sunny says that Leveson wasn’t asked to consider the regulation of information on the internet. So he didn’t. I can’t see the point of your remark.

You say that Sunny says “The internet shouldn’t have been part of the remit because the person tasked to investigate was ignorant.” You are right and Sunny is wrong. Any independent investigation has to assume its own ignorance ab initio. Otherwise the process has no point.

You say that Sunny says “As long as people don’t bother claiming to be ethical, they can do whatever they want – i.e., the only real issue with the press is hypocrisy.” No, that’s not what Sunny, or more importantly Lord Leveson, is saying, and I would have thought that Leveson’s point is clear – that those who claim to operate by ethical standards should abide by their own claims. The internet makes no such claims.

Tou say that Sunny says that “Westminster…and…other categories of news… stories don’t break on the internet”. You’re right. Of course they do. Again, though, I think that Leveson addresses that point. There is a world of difference between gossip in the local pub or on an internet chat board to the effect that Madeleine McCann was murdered by her parents, and the same suggestion being asserted by a newspaper which claims to observe ethical standards of reportage.

12. Man on Clapham Omnibus

7. Leon

Guardian has made a £44million loss.

13. Man on Clapham Omnibus

9. Tim J

It is all the press because ultimately the press authored the story. The none press element would be the same if people just chatted about a story over coffee having just read the newspaper or indeed wrote a letter to Toynbee.
I don’t think this issue is about the medium in which news is carried but more about regulating the those institutions associated with the daily production of news.
The internet, including the internet papers, are really just noise in the background.

14. Derek Hattons Tailor

I don’t agree with any regulation of the press but I don’t follow the OP logic in differentiating between the internet and the dead tree press/TV etc. If the only difference is a claim to/not to have any ethical standards then someone could start a paper, claim to have no ethical standards and that would be ok ?
From the perspective of “the victim” in what sense is the internet any different in it’s potential to invade privacy, misrepresent etc. The McAlpine allegation was broken entirely on the internet but had exactly the same impact as if broken in a paper or on channel 4 news.
The only real difference I can see is (for now and only to a point) elective anonymity.

@14. Derek Hattons Tailor: “I don’t agree with any regulation of the press…”

Not even libel? Libel acts post facto — do you believe that I could accuse Miles Quantifacts of Bristol to be a kiddy fiddler, without any legal response? Could I make that accusation anywhere?

“If the only difference is a claim to/not to have any ethical standards then someone could start a paper, claim to have no ethical standards and that would be ok ?”

Old dead tree brain Leveson considered that too. Leveson proposes a club where responsible journalism is conducted; membership of that club delivers privileges and requires responsibilities. Club privileges will be nifty. If your paper does not join the club, it lives in the wild west where lawyers will take you to pieces.

Bloggers are not newspapers.

“The McAlpine allegation was broken entirely on the internet but had exactly the same impact as if broken in a paper or on channel 4 news.”

Those Tweeters replicated an aspect of a story that they did not understand. Broadcasters did not name the man. because they realised that the evidence did not exist.

Tweeters need to be more hesitant about re-tweeting random accusations. It is an aspect of life called “responsibility”.

16. Derek Hattons Tailor

@15 You can then sue, as many victims of the press do. The law already offers remedies, it’s not an issue of press regulation but is being opportunistically presented as one.
The real issue in the hacking scandal was the Police (and others) selling privelidged information to journalists. Despite the promises none of them yet seems to have been charged with anything ?

17. Shatterface

I’m not opposed to a voluntary code of conduct that blog editors could sign up to

I’m not opposed to a voluntary code either.

I wouldn’t sign up to it because I don’t want to blog with one hand tied behind my back – but I’m not opposed to other bloggers signing away their credibility any more than I’d oppose a street protestor’s right to silence himself with a ball-gag.

The question is how ‘voluntary’ this would actually be.

18. Shatterface

The real issue in the hacking scandal was the Police (and others) selling privelidged information to journalists.

That, and page 3 (according to another thread at LibCon)

19. So Much for Subtlety

Or to put it another way – the front page of Reddit doesn’t break stories about Westminster policy proposals or scandals like the Daily Mail or The Guardian.

But that is because Britain does not have anyone like Drudge. Or even Breitbart. The internet in America has repeatedly broken stories. This is a failing of bloggers.

The internet has eaten away at newspaper sales and the rise of social media makes it harder for newspapers to push lies.

So there is no need for regulation at all.

In that sense the internet makes the Leveson report even more relevant and necessary.

Why do I get the feeling this article ends on the exact opposite note compared to how it started? If the internet is spreading lies, and it does, then how does the fact that the Leveson report does nothing about it help? Surely this is an argument for including the internet into his remit?

“I’m not opposed to a voluntary code of conduct that blog editors could sign up to.”

There is already the “Blog with Integrity” logo which I, and other responsible bloggers display.

http://www.blogwithintegrity.com/

I agree. The Leveson Inquiry was about the press because the press is able to set the agenda, and also because it had been shown that the press intimidates the Police and politicians. There is nothing, as yet, on the internet, that sets the agenda and intimidates in the way that the tabloid press does. The P. Staines blog might have had some power for a brief moment several years ago, but it lost that power as others opened up their own blogs and set out their own opinions.

Policemen don’t try to get their daughters jobs on this blog (because there aren’t any jobs on this blog). The PM doesn’t have country suppers with the owner of this blog (who doesn’t organise country suppers and who wouldn’t be able to swing the result of an election). Lot of very dubious things are said on the internet but it rarely matters because no-one has a critical mass that will affect political strategies and policy and it is relatively easy to contradict dubious stories. It is the concentration of influence of the press, and its ability to sway policy and fend off enforcement of the law and its own codes of practice, that led to the Leveson Inquiry. At present no-one is in that position on the internet.

@16. Derek Hattons Tailor: “You can then sue, as many victims of the press do. The law already offers remedies, it’s not an issue of press regulation but is being opportunistically presented as one.”

Yes, victims can sue. For a £50 charity donation, name anyone who is/was dependent on state benefits and who won a libel case (settled in court, not on the sidelines) for greater than £50.

£50 for the first instance.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Sunny Hundal

    Why Lord Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report – my blog > http://t.co/ukvuJ6fy

  2. iain d broadvampire

    Why Lord Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report – my blog > http://t.co/ukvuJ6fy

  3. Miljenko Williams

    .@libcon on #Leveson and the #Internet: http://t.co/kDDg19f0 I tend to agree – me, yesterday: http://t.co/QSb5uU1D

  4. Alex Braithwaite

    Lord Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/Z01Qtadb via @libcon

  5. @GrannyWils

    Lord Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/Z01Qtadb via @libcon

  6. Jason Brickley

    Lord Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report http://t.co/hJaUeEOl

  7. Sunny Hundal

    Lord Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report – my response to @emilybell @dbanksy and @paulbradshaw – http://t.co/ukvuJ6fy

  8. leftlinks

    Liberal Conspiracy – Lord Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report http://t.co/vmnXQ9Eg

  9. Chris Down

    Lord Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report – my response to @emilybell @dbanksy and @paulbradshaw – http://t.co/ukvuJ6fy

  10. Tony Kennick

    Lord Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/gAKTUFpY

  11. Martin Robbins

    I took the liberty of clarifying some of Hundal's arguments on #leveson and the internet -> http://t.co/FGRaJOcn

  12. GranSez

    I took the liberty of clarifying some of Hundal's arguments on #leveson and the internet -> http://t.co/FGRaJOcn

  13. William Perrin

    good Sunny Hundal piece on Leveson and the internet – of relevance to #hyperlocal http://t.co/JrUFLuSb

  14. Duncan Rimmer

    Lord Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/wp24LZkv via @libcon

  15. Gareth Hughes

    Lord Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/sFwZfwyL

  16. Sunny Hundal

    My blog this morning > Why Lord Justice Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report http://t.co/ukvuJ6fy

  17. @dbanksy

    My blog this morning > Why Lord Justice Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report http://t.co/ukvuJ6fy

  18. 2PacAlike

    My blog this morning > Why Lord Justice Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report http://t.co/ukvuJ6fy

  19. Tim Fenton

    My blog this morning > Why Lord Justice Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report http://t.co/ukvuJ6fy

  20. Hussain Cheema

    My blog this morning > Why Lord Justice Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report http://t.co/ukvuJ6fy

  21. Hass.

    My blog this morning > Why Lord Justice Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report http://t.co/ukvuJ6fy

  22. Leveson report: government prepares draft bill – live coverage ‹ Cyprus Today

    [...] • Liberal Conspiracy: Leveson was right to omit a internet in his report [...]

  23. Sunny Hundal

    This piece on Leveson and the internet by @sunny_hundal is v, interesting and well worth reading http://t.co/BGIqv1Lw

  24. Ron Graves

    Lord Justice Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/RAdyIyfz via @libcon

  25. Fazel Hawramy

    This piece on Leveson and the internet by @sunny_hundal is v, interesting and well worth reading http://t.co/BGIqv1Lw

  26. sylvian1361

    This piece on Leveson and the internet by @sunny_hundal is v, interesting and well worth reading http://t.co/BGIqv1Lw

  27. UnoLovelyDebi

    This piece on Leveson and the internet by @sunny_hundal is v, interesting and well worth reading http://t.co/BGIqv1Lw

  28. Mags

    This piece on Leveson and the internet by @sunny_hundal is v, interesting and well worth reading http://t.co/BGIqv1Lw

  29. Stuart Wilks-Heeg

    This piece on Leveson and the internet by @sunny_hundal is v, interesting and well worth reading http://t.co/BGIqv1Lw

  30. Maajid Nawaz

    Good comment MT @sunny_hundal My view on why Leveson's focus on how the internet affects papers would have been futile http://t.co/QRthtcH7

  31. austin flood

    RT @libcon: Lord Justice Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report http://t.co/Lx2RfLTn

  32. Guy Bailey

    Lord Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report – http://t.co/UY3RdcIg

  33. Kieran Houston

    @gallaghereditor @MayorofLondon @Telegraph Or, read @sunny_hundal on why #leveson was right to ignore the internet. http://t.co/2mIwswO9

  34. Leveson ReTweet

    @gallaghereditor @MayorofLondon @Telegraph Or, read @sunny_hundal on why #leveson was right to ignore the internet. http://t.co/2mIwswO9

  35. Boris wants a ‘code of conduct’ for Twitter from Leveson | Liberal Conspiracy

    [...] underscores the point I’ve been making all week. There is nothing conceivably practical that Leveson could have proposed about web regulation that [...]

  36. Andy Hicks

    LJ Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/XoRMkOxq via @libcon Sunny's earlier piece.

  37. Leveson ReTweet

    LJ Leveson was right to ignore the internet in his report | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/XoRMkOxq via @libcon Sunny's earlier piece.

  38. Is Leveson Report’s “online vacuum” a planned strategy? «

    [...] my latest post, I can share Sunny Hundal’s opinion about why Lord Justice Leveson “forgot” the Internet in his Report. If you don’t know about [...]

  39. Offline: Leveson leaves out the net in his inquiry into the press - The Breaker

    [...] from media commentators. Sunny Hundal‘s defence of Leveson, published on Friday, claimed the report was right to ignore the [...]





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