Bloggers unite to oppose “botched late-night drafting” that proposes new press/web regulation

I’m one of 17 signatories (on behalf of LibDemVoice) to a letter published in Saturday’s Guardian, reproduced below, which opposes the “fundamental threat” of the draft legislation approved this week by MPs of all parties which would regulate blogs and other small independent news websites.

It’s not often you’ll see us, ConservativeHome, LabourList, Guido Fawkes, Liberal Conspiracy and Political Scrapbook agree on something. But what we term the “botched late-night drafting process and complete lack of consultation” has, for once, brought us together. And, as the letter notes, perhaps even more remarkably got Tom Watson and Rupert Murdoch agreeing, too.guardian letter - march 2013

Here’s how The Guardian reports our letter and the next moves aiming to un-do some of the mess created by MPs’ shambolically rushed law-making on Monday:

The fear that bloggers and small-scale enterprises would be drawn into the Leveson net of regulation has provoked outrage. A diverse group of bloggers including ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie, LabourList’s Mark Ferguson, Guido Fawkes’s Paul Staines, Lib Dem Voice’s Stephen Tall and Political Scrapbook’s Laurence Durnan, in a letter to the Guardian, warn of the unforeseen consequences of the law. … Labour and Lib Dem sources said they would be tabling manuscript amendments to the crime and courts bill in the Lords to remove the threat. Two separate proposals have been suggested, either removing small businesses from the ambit of the proposed legislation or making it clear that not for profit groups would be excluded. It is thought both proposals in the eyes of civil servants have technical deficiencies, or will prevent opportunities for big media to circumvent the exemplary damages legislation. Instead civil servants are working on proposals based on either size or turn-over.

I think readers know my views on the post-Leveson legislation by now: that its well-meaning attempts to stick up for the victims of press excess are a dangerous infringement of free speech. Many of you, I know, disagree with me on this. What may be less contentious is that such legislation has to be very carefully thought-through if it is to avoid unintended consequences. That has not happened here, as Hacked Off itself has conceded.

Where does the majority of the blame for this cock-up lie? Here’s Paddy Ashdown’s take (via the same Guardian report):

… Paddy Ashdown [claims] David Cameron made a colossal “strategic blunder” in pulling out of talks on the creation of a new regulator for the press. Lord Ashdown said the Prime Minister had simultaneously damaged his standing with his own MPs, angered his supporters in the newspapers, and strained relations with his Lib Dem coalition partners. In an interview with BBC Radio 4′s The Week In Westminster, he said Mr Cameron managed to achieve the “Tory nightmare” of forcing Nick Clegg to line up with Labour. “I have not seen an avoidable strategic blunder made by a British prime minister or indeed the leader of a British political party which matches that of Mr Cameron over Leveson,” he said . “He marched his troops up to the top of the hill and then he had to march them back down again. In terms of strategy, this seems to me to make the Grand Old Duke of York look like a military genius.”

Botched draft that threatens the blogosphere

The Guardian – 23 March, 2013

The Leveson inquiry was set up to address “the culture, practices and ethics of the press, including contacts between the press and politicians and the press and the police” (Comment, 19 March). Our views diverge on whether the outcome of the Leveson process – and the plans for a new regulator – are the best way forward. But where we all agree is that current attempts at regulating blogs and other small independent news websites are critically flawed.

The government has defined a “relevant publisher” for the purposes of press regulation in a way that seeks to draft campaign groups and community-run websites covering neighbourhood planning applications and local council affairs into a regulator designed for the Guardian, Sun and Daily Mail. Even the smallest of websites will be threatened with the stick of punitive “exemplary damages” if they fall foul of a broad range of torts, encompassing everything from libel to “breach of confidence”. The authors of these proposals should reflect on their remarkable achievement of uniting both Tom Watson and Rupert Murdoch in opposition.

This appears to be the outcome of a botched late-night drafting process and complete lack of consultation with bloggers, online journalists and social media users, who may now be caught in regulations which trample on grassroots democratic activity and Britain’s emerging digital economy. Leveson was meant to be focused on the impact of “big media”. In the end it may come to be seen as a damaging attack on Britain’s blogosphere, which rather than being a weakness in British politics, has proved time and time again that it is a real strength.

We will all continue to write, campaign, cajole, amuse and irritate online. But we consider the current proposals a fundamental threat to doing just that.

Mark Ferguson LabourList
Tim Montgomerie ConservativeHome
Stephen Tall LibDemVoice
Laurence Durnan Political Scrapbook
Paul Staines Editor, Guido Fawkes’ Blog
Harry Cole News Editor, Guido Fawkes’ Blog
Alex Wickham Reporter, Guido Fawkes’ Blog
Sunny Hundal Liberal Conspiracy
Jag Singh Messagespace
Neal Lawson Compass
Nick Pickles Director, Big Brother Watch
Jim Killock Executive director, Open Rights Group
Emma Burnell Scarlet Standard
Adam Bienkov
Luke Akehurst
James Bloodworth Left Foot Forward
Jon Lansman Leftfutures

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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24 Comments

  • Tony Greaves 24th Mar '13 - 2:04pm

    An interesting post about the purpose of LDV.

    Tony Greaves

  • Richard Dean 24th Mar '13 - 2:15pm

    I agree with Cllr Wright.

    Perhaps LDV editors should review the information available on the “About us” menu item, where it says that: “Our editorial line is neutral on matters of debate within the party and ….”

    http://www.libdemvoice.org/the-liberal-democrat-voice-team

  • You can already be sued. The system would give a measure of protection in exchange for the burden of regulation. I’m struggling for logical reasons why a journalist/blogger would oppose this beyond hoping to take the Murdoch or Dacre shilling down the line.

  • “You will be well aware that most of those who are trying to scupper the proposed press regulation are not doing so because they have concerns about the fine details”

    So where does that leave people who do have concerns about the fine details? That is where the devil is usually to be found. This is legislation drafted in haste and passed into law without much scrutiny (3 hours plus whatever the Lords give it on reconsideration – when they also have some signficant bits of the substantive Crime & Courts legislation to deal with). That is a crazy way to make legislation as significant and potentially far reaching as this.

    The Labour govenment was massively criticised for introducing huge numbers of provisions at report stage when they couldn’t be properly scrutinised in the Criminal Justice Act – that’s just what’s happening here.

    Stephen – the Royal Charter says “The membership of a regulatory body should be open to all publishers on fair,
    reasonable and non-discriminatory terms, including making membership potentially available on different terms for different types of publisher.” so there is plenty of scope for dealing with small publishers. But I agree that how this will operate in practice isn’t clear – which comes back the the broken record I keep playing about the lack of scrutiny for this legislation.

  • Richard Dean 24th Mar '13 - 5:32pm

    I would call it normal, not a bit weird at all. You either take responsibility or you don’t, there’s no half way.

  • “But if you’re backing amendments that would change the definition of a “relevant publisher” so as to take small and non-profit blogs out of the system altogether – benefits and all – then you certainly do want to deny me choice, in spite of what you say.”

    As a blogger you’re eligible to be regulated, according to the royal charter. The Crime and Courts Bill governs only the “sticks” of exemplary damages and costs, and its definition of “relevant publisher” is already much more restricted than that in the royal charter. If you’re an individual blogger it already excludes you.

  • “Trans woman commits suicide after being bullied by the Daily Mail””

    A tragic occurrence. But repeatedly posting links to this story isn’t really a substitute for reasoned discussion about press regulation, is it? Shouldn’t a liberal favour a more considered approach to such an important issue, rather than indulging in a kind of emotional blackmail?

  • Tony Dawson 24th Mar '13 - 7:45pm

    @Hywel:

    “This is legislation drafted in haste and passed into law without much scrutiny”

    Perhaps it should be renamed the ‘Dangerous Press-dogs Act’? :-(

  • Richard Dean 24th Mar '13 - 8:16pm

    Haven’t you already joined that club, Stephen? All of you post online articles whose taste and appropriateness can be subject to debate.

  • That list of co-signatories is a very good reason not to support anything they advocate. Stephen is the only sensible person out of that whole bunch and on this occasion (unusually) I think he is profoundly mistaken.

  • Anything that unites the right wing press is not likely to be good for the rest of society !

  • “That list of co-signatories is a very good reason not to support anything they advocate.”

    As a general principle, wouldn’t it be a good idea to look at the arguments on their merits, rather than taking a look at the proponents’ names and deciding on that basis to oppose whatever it is they may be saying?

  • As a general principle, wouldn’t it be a good idea to look at the arguments on their merits, rather than taking a look at the proponents’ names and deciding on that basis to oppose whatever it is they may be saying?
    Yes, done that too. But if Enoch Powell, Gerry Adams, Ian Paisley and Tony Benn were signed up to something, and wrote to a national newspaper publicising their mutual alignment in an effort to influence others, then my view would typically be influenced … and not in a positive way. Stephen aside, this is the modern day equivalent of the “No” campaign front bench in the 1975 EEC referendum, and as such are a highly (negatively) persuasive bunch!

  • Dominic

    I think your comparison is ridiculous, but – even on those terms – if Enoch Powell, Gerry Adams, Ian Paisley and Tony Benn had agreed about something, I should be sufficiently impressed by that fact to consider it quite carefully on its merits rather than dismissing it unconsidered.

  • You mean like they all agreed that we should withdraw from the (then) EEC? Yes, very impressive :roll eyes:

    The 4 I mentioned were certainly more heavyweight than Stephen’s co-signatories but a similar level of flapping of white coats

  • Dominic

    How you arrive at your political opinions is your business, of course, but I don’t think you should ridicule others for considering issues on their merits. I find it rarely does any harm.

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