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What Century is Lord Justice Leveson Living In?


On a day when world politics was rocked by the news that the Syrian government shut down the country's Internet in an ostensible attempt to stymie opposition groups, an English judge issued the much-anticipated findings of his eight-month inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the British press. The nearly 2,000-page report (a 48-page executive summary is available), spawned by an eight-year and increasingly explosive phone-hacking scandal by News International newspaper journalists, is a sprawling deep dive into the UK media landscape, press ethics and values in addition to a detailed analysis of the complex scandal itself.

The massive condensation of materials examined, interviews conducted and hearings held is a prosecuting jurist's dream and a media analyst's delight, featuring facts, analysis, history and wonderfully colorful condemnation of some of Britain's most powerful figures and institutions, primarily Rupert Murdoch's News International., which has dominated British press and politics for well over a quarter of a century.  I'll leave it to others to accurately and adequately summarize the Proustian report, except to say that Lord Justice Leveson, the judge who led the inquiry, concluded his work by recommending an intricate system of British press self-regulation back-stopped by legislation and public officials to "guard the guardians."

This prospect of further intrusion by the British government into the workings of the press is only now being digested by the press and politicians, although Conservative Party Prime Minister David Cameron immediately and summarily dismissed the report's call for statutory oversight of the press.  And by "press," Leveson does indeed mean only the traditional press, the kind that uses paper and ink.  

Any notion of regulating Internet-based journalism or publishing was roundly rejected by Leveson because, well, the Internet is not the press, in his eyes, because it is unregulated, does not operate according to ethical standards and in any event, web-based content such as blogs or tweets are barely ready by anyone and "rarely read as news or factual."  

Yes, that's what he said.

What follows are selected sections from the report where, in essence, Leveson says, unlike the Syrian government, that the Internet does not matter.  

Regarding blogs (and here Leveson even cites newspaper blogs, such as those maintained by the Guardian newspaper):
These vastly different sites are all offered to the public in the same way; they all have the same theoretical reach to the entire internet-connected population at the touch of a button (particularly when facilitated by search engines). They are also, with the regulatory exceptions set out above, entirely unregulated, though subject to civil and criminal law in appropriate jurisdictions. However, it is noteworthy that although the blogs cited here are read by very large numbers of people, it should not detract from the fact that most blogs are read by very few people. Indeed, most blogs are rarely read as news or factual, but as opinion and must be considered as such. [emphasis added]
How Twitter is not really that important a new source because so few tweets are read:
However, it is worthy of note that despite their extraordinary growth, as with most blogs, in the main few tweets or social network pages are read by very large numbers of people.
The Internet does not operate by ethical standards:
...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’. 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.
Because it does not operate according to ethical standards, the Internet is not really the press:
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). Newspapers, through whichever  medium they are delivered, purport to offer a quality product in all senses of that term.  Although in the light of the events leading to the setting up of this Inquiry and the evidence  I have heard, the public is entitled to be sceptical about the true quality of parts of that  product in certain sections of the press, the premise on which newspapers operate remains  constant: that the Code will be adhered to, that within the bounds of natural human error  printed facts whether in newsprint or online will be accurate, and that individual rights will  be respected. In contrast, the internet does not function on this basis at all. People will not  assume that what they read on the internet is trustworthy or that it carries any particular  assurance or accuracy; it need be no more than one person’s view. There is none of the notional imprimatur or kitemark which comes from being the publisher of a respected  broadsheet or, in its different style, an equally respected mass circulation tabloid.
So, in the end, Leveson is recommending government regulation (through the formation of a statutorily backed independent self-regulatory body) of only print products and, vaguely, for web-based news produced by traditional print media.  And the only entities subject to that regulation would be UK-based press outlets.

At first blush, while Leveson may have noble intentions to elevate the British press to a more sacred purveyor of only ethical news that serves the public interest, his garbled grasp of how the Internet works might only serve to weaken the very institution he seeks to strengthen.  By burdening the already beleaguered print media with the prospect of a new regulatory body, given the force of law by the government (the prospective weakening of the "free" press that would occur from this move will likely and should receive more analysis), Leveson's recommendations, if carried out, could be yet another nail in the old media's coffin, at least in the UK.

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