The press, Lord Justice Leveson observed in his presentation today, “operates very differently from blogs on the internet and other social media such as Twitter.”
That statement will certainly be true if the judge’s recommendations are implemented, leaving newspapers and magazines (and their increasingly important websites) under a watchdog regime enshrined in law – and the rest of the Internet as an unregulated Wild West.
Leveson was careful to set his inquiry in the context of the long and troubled history of press regulation, but his report hardly differed from David Calcutt’s version in 1990 in the sense that there was almost no mention of online media.
Reading the 2,000 pages, it was almost as if the World Wide Web never happened.
Yet many of the most recent media scandals – from the naming of Ryan Giggs in breach of privacy laws, to the publication of topless photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge, to the gross misidentification of Lord McAlpine as a paedophile – have involved online publishers as key players.
While print media organisations are likely to have to operate under considerable new constraints if Leveson’s recommendations are enacted, it will be business as usual for big online publishers such as Google, Facebook and Twitter.
A Google search of Lord McAlpine and other prominent Conservatives named earlier this month in relation to a BBC Newsnight report on child abuse still offered a series of blogs which carried the unsubstantiated slurs.
One British blogger who had previously written about the “evil” Lord McAlpine, has just published a long apology. “Absolutely no-one should have to live with such terrible stories, none of which are founded on one jot of evidence, circulating about them,” wrote “Scrapper Duncan”. “I hope that he is successful in closing this ugly chapter and can swiftly return to enjoying life, free from the frightening scenario that social media has dragged him into.”
Leveson, as he attempts to right the perceived shortcomings of Calcutt, appears like a general preparing to fight the last war. He wants regulation to apply to all “significant news providers”, but even bloggers, tweeters and gossip sites with vast followings will be happy to be seen as “insignificant” if they can remain outside the system. And as most British print news groups transition to Internet publishing models, they are likely to find themselves playing to rules which are wholly ignored by their competitors.