Britain's reputation as an Internet-friendly creative hub was in jeopardy today as websites voiced their anger at “draconian” attempts to regulate online commentary and news.
Some website founders told The Independent that they were considering moving their businesses overseas in order to escape the risk of crippling legal costs resulting from their inclusion within press reforms introduced on Monday in a Royal Charter.
The warnings came as several established media organisations signalled that they would not be signing up to the new regulatory system.
The Spectator magazine produced a front page with the single word “No”. Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, said he saw no reason to join. “At the moment I'm out,” he said.
Four of Britain's largest newspaper groups, including the publishers of The Telegraph, The Daily Mail and The Sun, were tonight taking “high level legal advice” amid speculation that they might set up a breakaway press regulatory system. In an email to readers, Daily Telegraph deputy editor Benedict Brogan expressed the personal view that “we should note the outcome, thank the politicians for their engagement, and quietly but firmly decline to take part”.
But the question of internet regulation could prove even thornier. The influential Association of Online Publishers (AOP) tonight issued a statement to say it had “major concerns” about the charter, particularly over the threat of punitive awards in the libel courts for those who do not join the regulatory system. The organisation's chairman John Barnes said: “There are major concerns about Exemplary Damages and arbitration and AOP is concerned that the new system will just not work.”
The charter will “undoubtedly have a chilling effect on everyday people's web use”, the freedom of speech group Index on Censorship said. “Bloggers could find themselves subject to exemplary damages in court, due to the fact that they were not part of a regulator that was not intended for them in the first place. This mess of legislation has been thrown together with alarming haste: there's little doubt we'll repent for a while to come.”
Camilla Wright, who founded the entertainment website Popbitch, said she would be prepared to move the site to America to avoid being subject to a regulator which will have power over websites which produce “gossip about celebrities, other public figures or other persons in the news”.
She said: “It will put some people out of business I would have thought. It would be a massive step to turn Popbitch into a North American publication and get First Amendment protection but it would not be out of the question. I would not want to move out of the UK but it would be a sad day to stop publishing because of a law brought in to help rein in the excesses of some newspapers.”
Jamie East, founder of another entertainment site Holy Moly, said he was confused by the proposals and why Twitter is seemingly exempt from regulation. “Making Twitter exempt is weird because the majority of stories on celebrity blogs are derived from Twitter anyway - you could argue it is more of a news feed than a social network.”
He said the approach was “draconian” and criticised the Government's approach to online media businesses.
Government sources said that bloggers and news websites would not be forced to join the regulatory system, though they might face exemplary damages in libel courts if they did not. “This is a system of incentivisation not compulsion.” The system will not apply to lone amateur bloggers but to sites that use multiple authors and operate as a business.
But the confusion and alarm among the blogging community is damaging to Britain's reputation for embracing the Internet, as the Government tries to attract digital talent to the technology sector and maximise the availability of fast speed broadband. In America, where the principle of freedom of speech is sacrosanct, such attempts to regulate online news sites would create uproar.
Tonight Downing Street urged the main newspaper groups to sign up to the cross-party plans. David Cameron's spokesman said: “The Prime Minister thinks the right thing to do is to get on and set up the regulator.”
Earlier Mr Cameron insisted he had established a system that was practical and “workable”. He said: “I'm convinced it will work and it will endure.”
His Liberal Democrat deputy, Nick Clegg, said: “I hope that when [newspapers] examine the fine print, they will see that the incentives are strong and that it's worthwhile.”
Media maze: Who will – and won’t – be affected by the new system
Although newspapers were the cause of the Leveson Inquiry and are the focus of regulatory reform, the magazine sector is also subject to the system (though special-interest and “hobby” magazines are supposed to be unaffected) and its trade body, the Professional Publishers Association, has joined press groups in strongly criticising the charter and the way it was drawn up.
Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, said he was not intending to join the new regulatory system. “I was not a member of the Press Complaints Commission. No one has rung me and they don’t seem to have an interest in my opinion anyway – so at the moment, I’m out. I have always said I would rather be regulated by the courts. I want to obey the law and I think everyone else should. People broke the law and behaved badly. I cannot see that even the new regulator would have stopped any of the abuses that were complained of – they would have hacked the phones under this new system.
“I want to work out what on earth it means. Do the rules regulate Hugh Grant’s tweets? And can I complain about them?
“The problem is you are seen as either a supporter of the Dowlers or you are an evil minion of Murdoch. It isn’t like that. Index on Censorship are not in the pay of the press barons, they are expressing an honest opinion. We don’t have a system of justice in this country where the victims decide the punishment. The views of the victims of the press are not necessarily of any more importance or credibility than the views of anybody else. I feel I should be allowed to disagree with them without being accused of betrayal.
“To see why we are worried about state interference, look at the way this bill got into the statute books. It’s a complete dog’s dinner done in the middle of the night when the Prime Minister is asleep. How does that bode for the future?”
The red-top titles whose journalism brought the roof in on the rest of the printed media probably have the most to fear from the prospect of exemplary libel damages. But what of the largely blameless quality sector? Chris Blackhurst, the editor of The Independent, said the charter should not “threaten the sort of journalism we produce”. But The Daily Telegraph is allied to a larger chunk of Fleet Street which has concerns over “deeply contentious issues” in the charter.
Bloggers are potentially at risk from the charter’s definition of a publisher, which extends to “a website containing news-related material” or “opinion about matters relating to the news or current affairs”. Index on Censorship’s Padraig Reidy said: “If I have a blog which almost no one reads but then I write a post which Justin Bieber retweets I could suddenly have a million readers. Does that mean I have to sign up to the system?”
Bloggers initially thought that press-regulation reform would not affect them. But the unclear wording of the document suggests that all publishers of “news” could be liable to complaints and potentially to exemplary damages if they fail to sign up. Paul Staines, the founder of the political blog Guido Fawkes, believes the charter’s lack of clarity gives great cause for concern for bloggers. He notes that even the websites of the main political parties were involved in publishing “news”. But he is confident his own overseas-registered site is safe. “We’ve been going for nine years and have never been successfully sued so I take a very sceptical stance towards the effect it could have on us. We’re certainly not going to join any regulator. People will be encouraged to sue but our servers are in California so what are they going to do – send a Royal Navy gunboat?”
The Royal Charter’s definition of “news-related material” includes “gossip about celebrities, other public figures or other persons in the news”. Camilla Wright, a co-founder of the showbiz-gossip blog Popbitch, expects an increase in spurious legal complaints. “It will put some people out of business, I would have thought.” She says she might leave the UK rather than risk losing her home to authoritarian new regulations. “It would be a massive step to turn Popbitch into a North American publication and get First Amendment protection but it would not be out of the question.”
Local and regional papers
Financially challenged and very vulnerable to the increased compliance costs likely to result from the new system, local newspapers are being punished for the wrongdoing of others, according to Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors. “If they don’t join the system they could face exemplary damages, and if they do they will certainly have a lot more work to do and it will cost them more for something that was not of their making. The politicians have totally ignored that.” Mark Jones, editor of the Basingstoke Gazette, said: “It hasn’t worked out as we hoped, and there are dangers that we are caught up in a potentially expensive and debilitating system. We will do our job exactly the same way as we have in the past. We act in a fair and responsible way, and we are very careful what we publish and how we behave. We will have to see how this plays out in the long run.”
When Lord McAlpine was falsely linked to child abuse by users of Twitter last year, the peer’s lawyers took action for defamation only against people with more than 500 followers on the social-media site. The Royal Charter is not intended to apply to Twitter at all, but some users have vast audiences. Sally Bercow, one of Lord McAlpine’s accusers, had 57,000 followers. Another, the comedian Alan Davies, has 488,000. It seems inconsistent that tweets on the news are ignored while comments on a news website with a smaller audience falls within the system.
MP calls for some reporters to be banned
A Labour MP tonight stood by his call for some journalists to be banned from reporting in Parliament.
Jim Sheridan, the MP for Paisley, accused reporters of “hiding behind their pens” and “calling people names” and told a Commons committee he did not understand why they were allowed into the building.
The Parliamentary Press Gallery and Lobby said it was dismayed at the remarks as reporters had enjoyed “unfettered access” to the Commons since 1803.