Small-scale blogs to be excluded from post-Leveson media regulation

A week ago I posed (and answered) the question, After Leveson: which blogs are to be regulated? Answer: no-one yet knows. Well, we do now know.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) yesterday announced a ‘refinement’ of the Leveson legislation included within the Crime and Courts Bill. And it confirms that small-blogs are no longer to be expected to join the proposed self-regulator (though they can do if they wish):

The amendments, which have cross-party agreement, make clear that small blogs will not be classed as ‘relevant publishers’, and be considered by the House of Commons on Monday April 22. … The provisions in the Crime and Courts Bill clauses detail the four tests that must be met to be considered a relevant publisher, which are:

  • publish ‘news-related’ material
  • publish in the course of a business
  • written by different authors
  • subject to editorial controls

The amendments clarify the government’s position on small blogs by further defining the exemption for blogs that are classed as ‘micro-businesses’ – business with fewer than 10 employees and an annual turnover below £2 million. This is the definition used by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Despite not falling under the definition of relevant publisher, any publication that is exempt as a micro-business as a result of these amendments could still choose to join a regulator and receive the legal benefits otherwise only available to relevant publishers in the regulator. That means protection from exemplary damages. It also means that use of the arbitral arm in the regulator will be taken into account by the court when awarding costs.

From a LibDemVoice perspective, this is a good result: it leaves those of us who run the site as unpaid volunteers free to decide whether or not to join the self-regulator once we see what it involves — including what it will cost to join, and the calibre of those who sit on it.

Here’s Evan Harris, former Lib Dem MP and now associate director of the pro-Leveson campaign group, Hacked Off:

“This is a very good result for bloggers … almost all multi-author edited news blogs will not need to join an approved self-regulator in order to avoid cost penalties if sued in court. But in addition, any such news blogs who do choose to join, will get cost protection if a libel or privacy claimant chooses to sue them in court instead of using the arbitration scheme in the self-regulator.”

However, as the civil liberties campaigners at Big Brother Watch have pointed out, the amendments remain problematic:

… the drafting only protects either ‘incidental’ publishers of news-related material, or multi-author blogs. So someone who is not a blog, who publishes news-related material on a regular basis, remains in scope even if their turnover is £10,000. In other words, if you’re a small, local newspaper with 3 staff and a turnover of £100,000 then you’re still a relevant publisher, but if you are a £1.5m turnover blog with 8 full time staff you’re not. Aside from the obvious competition law issues – it locks in the existing publishers by increasing the barriers to start-ups – it is also a fundamental problem that freedom of speech online and freedom of speech offline are diverging so significantly.

So the Guido Fawkes site can remain outside regulatory scope while trading in gossip and scandal to a large online audience, but a hyper-local paper with a small print readership may find itself penalised. Which is why Nick Clegg was this week under pressure from The Newspaper Society to consult with local and regional newspaper titles, whose conduct was praised by the Leveson Report but now to be subject to the same rules as the national titles.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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13 Comments

  • Local papers still commit the ethical failings of the nationals. Or are we forgetting about Lucy Meadows so soon?

  • “This clarification is good news but it is not a surprise to people who havent been reacting hysterically to the Levson proposals.”

    Actually, the conclusion I draw is that the discussion about blogs makes a nonsense of some of the more hysterical pro-regulation arguments.

    It’s been argued that proposals for press regulation must be justified (without any consideration of arguments for or against the details) because someone transsexual committed suicide after hostile comment in a newspaper. It happened to be a newspaper, but it might have been a blog, mightn’t it? So, in the eyes of people who accept such emotive arguments, why should blogs be excluded from regulation?

  • “it’s about business model, and the fact that newspapers have a clear profit incentive to create spectacles (some of which do it by destroying people’s lives). Blogs are not big business so don’t have that incentive. Different business model leads to different needs. Not that difficult to understand, really.”

    No, the argument you’ve just put forward isn’t difficult to understand at all (though whether business has to be big for the incentive to exist is obviously very questionable – think about Guido, for example).

    But the point is what you were saying before – in effect, “You can’t argue with these proposals because someone committed suicide” – wasn’t an argument at all. So the patronising tone of your comment is hardly appropriate.

  • “400 years of free speech ends in the UK”

    According to Google this phrase only exists on the internet in the above comment.

  • Hey – it was you who used the quote as an illustration of what people were saying. But the other alternatives don’t produce any responses either.

    I don’t think your claims of hysterial responses are backed up by using quotes which don’t exist

    As Stephen said above any response was so hysterical and unjustified that amendments to address the point are now going to be proposed on the floor of the House of Commons. This is what happens when you proposed legislation in a hurry which no time for it to be properly scrutinised. It is an incredibly bad idea to say that the implications don’t need ironing out because the overall intent is a good one.

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