WAN-IFRA

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Frederick Alliott

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The United States, the United Kingdom and Canada have each declined to sign a United Nations treaty on telecommunications and the Internet. The US Ambassador to the conference, Terry Kramer, stated that ‘we candidly cannot support an ITU treaty that is inconsistent with a multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance.’

Recent research by the UK regulator Ofcom suggests that Internet users ‘already rely more on the network than newspapers and magazines for their national news’ and the Internet is likely to overtake TV also.

The online culture and current affairs magazine Slate is the latest in a long line of news organizations to consider a pay model – in its own words, a ‘subscription-based premium membership program’.

22 victims of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal have reached court settlements, including the radio DJ Jamie Theakston and Robbie Williams’s ex-girlfriend, Lisa Brash.

The Huffington Post has struck a deal with the Japanese media corporation Asahi Shimbun to launch a website in the country. Arianna Huffington said: ‘as our first edition in Asia, HuffPost Japan is […] a reflection of our commitment to inviting ever more voices to join our growing global conversation’.

The Guardian today lists some of those in contention to be the new editor of the Times, following the resignation of James Harding. Possible names include Martin Ivens, Camilla Cavendish and the current Sunday Times editor John Witherow.

Warren Buffett, the famous billionaire investor and 'sage of Omaha', is the latest tycoon – according to Bloomberg – to attempt to rescue the newspaper business from seemingly terminal decline.

The Guardian has withdrawn its ‘social reading’ app from Facebook, after the network changed the way in which they operated. The newspaper will instead push readers from the social network to its own website.

Sources: Mashable, PaidContent, Forbes, BBC, Guardian, Guardian, GigaOM, Bloomberg.

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Frederick Alliott

Date

2012-12-14 17:25

‘There’s been huge hysteria in some branches of the press in the last two days, saying we’re going down the road of Zimbabwe, that we’re going to be another Kazakhstan – that’s nonsense.’ So said Stephen Pritchard, readers’ editor of The Observer, in an interview with me last week in the aftermath of the Leveson report. He’s right, of course: feverish and emotional editorializing from so clear a vested interest as the tabloid press, particularly in light of the disgusting behaviour that presaged the inquiry, can easily be dismissed as fundamentally unserious. Yet the danger of allowing extreme examples advocated by discredited sources to cloud legitimate concerns over the independence and freedom of the press has been starkly illustrated today, in the story of Maria Miller and the Daily Telegraph that ought to serve as a cautionary tale for those inclined to take such freedoms for granted.

In keeping with its self-appointed role as Lord High Executioner when it comes to MPs’ expenses, the Telegraph contacted Ms Miller’s office for comment after the Culture Secretary was reported to the parliamentary standards watchdog for claiming £90,000 for a second home where her parents were in residence. The reporter in question did indeed receive comment, though not from her, but from her special adviser, Joanna Hindley. The latter, maybe bruised by such flagrant impertinence directed at her venerable employer, reminded the impudent hack that the editor of his paper was ‘in meetings with the Prime Minister and the Culture Secretary’ about the very industry in which he was employed, and was was quoted as saying: ‘Maria has obviously been having quite a lot of editors’ meetings around Leveson at the moment. So I am just going to kind of flag up that connection for you to think about’. Hindley also said the reporter should discuss the issue with ‘people a little higher up your organisation’. 

It doesn’t take an amoral tabloid alarmist who just wants to keep on rifling through Steve Coogan’s bins to conclude that such mafia-like threats emanating from the heart of government is not an encouraging development. In response, the paper decided ‘to disclose details of the private conversations amid widespread concern about the potential dangers of politicians being given a role in overseeing the regulation of the press’, a line of argument that suddenly appears to rely less on scaremongering and to have a toe-hold, at least, in hard fact. Even advocates of statutory regulation of the press have been spooked: Dr Evan Harris, the former Liberal Democrat MP and associate director of Hacked Off, indicated this morning that he thought Miller should ‘recuse herself’ from the Leveson negotiations, and Roy Greenslade at the Guardian labelled the comments ‘a disgraceful act’ which ‘reflects badly on her office, if not herself’.

Nick Cohen of the Observer (no Tory reactionary, he) is emphatic on the matter. To Hugh Grant’s famous protestation that ‘it is not difficult to tell what is bath water and what is baby’ when it comes to regulating the press, he states in his blog on the Spectator's site that ‘this morning’s Telegraph raises a further objection […] what about the people who want to throw out babies? What about the people who want to drown them in the bathwater and hurl them out of the window to stop them screaming the house down?’

‘Despite the Telegraph’s principled stand [to publish]’, he concludes, ‘don’t kid yourself that every editor will be as principled in future, and that this is not a foretaste of what may come’. It is perhaps as well to accept this unsavoury prospect as a possibility, at the very least, in the post-Leveson media landscape.

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Frederick Alliott

Date

2012-12-12 19:13

Imprisonment of journalists worldwide reached a record high in 2012, according to a comprehensive study by the press freedom watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The research adumbrates details of the worst excesses of offending countries, identifying a total of 232 individuals behind bars - an increase of 53 on its 2011 tally. The list take the form of a snapshot of those incarcerated as of 12.01am on December 1, 2012; it thus does not include the many journalists imprisoned and released at other points throughout the year.

The report identifies Turkey, Iran and China as having the most egregious records, with the three countries doing much to swell the overall total to its highest point since the CPJ first began conducting surveys in 1990. Eritrea and Syria were additionally classified as among the very worst offenders, with Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia completing the top ten. Anti-democratic regimes in such countries were cited by the study as displaying evidence of extensive, autocratic and indiscriminate use of vague anti-state laws, such as terrorism, treason and subversion, in order to silence dissent and political opposition without so much as a perfunctory concession either to due process or to the rule of law.

Turkey holds the ignominious title of world’s worst place to be a journalist, with 49 reporters and editors held in custody. Ambiguously worded anti-terror legislation ‘makes no distinction between journalists exercising freedom of expression and [individuals] aiding terrorism,’ said Mehmet Ali Birand, an editor with the Istanbul-based station ‘Kanal D,’ quoted in the Guardian. Iran, second worst with 45 currently in jail, is in the throes of a governmental crackdown that traces its origins to the acrimonious 2009 presidential election; and in China, at number three with 32 incarcerated, at least 19 of the journalists held are Tibetans or Uighurs jailed for documenting ethnic tensions that first escalated in 2008. ‘Journalists who report on areas deemed 'most sensitive' by the state—China's troubled ethnic regions of Tibet and Xinjiang—are most vulnerable,’ said Phelim Kine, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. 

‘CPJ believes that journalists should not be imprisoned for doing their jobs’ is a statement whose emotive power stems from its essential simplicity. No Eritrean detainee has ever been publicly charged with a crime or brought before a court for trial. The same is true in President Assad’s Syria. Such facts need no embellishment, for they are self-evidently inexplicable. Whilst Burma emerges from the report as a rare beacon of light as it gingerly treads the boards of representative democracy, the trends highlighted by the CPJ are both deeply worrying and, perhaps, a salutary warning for more enlightened regimes against state interference – at whatever level – into the operations of a free press.

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Frederick Alliott

Date

2012-12-11 19:28

In the third instalment of our series of interviews with knowledgeable figures in the wake of the Leveson report, I sent some questions via email to Professor George Brock. Professor Brock has been the Head of the Department of Journalism at City University London since September 2009, and before that spent 28 years at The Times. He is a former President of the World Editors Forum.

Editors Weblog: Do you agree with Lord Justice Leveson that 'this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press'?

George Brock: It's not statutory regulation of the press but it does introduce an element of statute where none has operated before. That's not without risk.

Putting the issue of whether or not this regulation should be statutory, do you agree in principle with the sort of body that Leveson proposes to establish?  

Yes, I think it would be an improvement on what has gone before – most particularly the "arbitral arm" which would promise quicker, cheaper redress in cases of defamation of invasion of privacy. The length and cost of cases has been a major issue and tipped the scale too far in favour of big media.

In recent articles you have advanced the argument that while statutory regulation is undesirable, existing laws could be strengthened and clarified in a kind of 'third way'. In light of the report, do you still think this? What would you change in the proposal?

My proposal for a "bargain," under which public interest defences would be strengthened in law but could only be accessed by media which convincingly demonstrated transparent and enforceable editorial standards, stands as made. When the schemes currently being debated fall down – as they well may – I shall whip out my scheme with a cry of "here's one I made earlier".

In the 'too close' relationship between the press and politicians addressed by LJL, do you think his prescription of 'more transparency' is enough?

I don't think that transparency is relevant. The press and politicians will always be in close proximity; they need to be. What went wrong was a media company, News International, having excessive power because of the share of the market that it holds. That was the root of the problem. 

What do you make of the political reaction/fallout from the report? In particular, do you think the Prime Minister is right to have 'serious misgivings' about enacting new legislation? 

I share Cameron's misgivings about legislating. What bothers me is that Cameron and the editors are now cooking up a solution without any public debate. But it's also true that the public have mostly lost interest in the whole Leveson event.

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Frederick Alliott

Date

2012-12-10 17:15

Mashable lists 11 ‘tech trends for 2013’, analysing developing technologies which it says will play an increasingly central part in the future of modern media;

In a bid to save £7 million from its budget, Guardian News & Media reveals plans to cut 68 editorial posts;

After years of bad headlines for the news industry, The Economist claims that ‘things have started to look a bit less grim, particularly in America’, regarding newspaper circulation figures;

The BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones has a special report on the social media revolution in China, including an in-depth look at the company Tencent – described as a ‘powerhouse’ in the country;

Pulitzer-winning foreign correspondent Paul Salopek is preparing a walk from Africa to South America, documenting his travels over the course of 7 years and 22,000 miles; 

The British Labour Party has begun drafting statutory legislation for a press law in response to Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into press standards, after campaigners and others rejected alternative proposals from national newspaper editors;

Joshua Benton reflects on the demise of The Daily, and suggests some lessons to be learned after the News Corp.-backed iPad-only ‘newspaper’ closed last week;

Mathew Ingram discusses the ‘ongoing unbundling of the news’ in the context of ‘Syria Deeply’, a ‘digital newspaper/community’ devoted solely to the conflict in the war-torn country.

Sources: Mashable, Guardian, Economist, BBC, NiemanLab, Guardian, NiemanLab, GigaOM

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Frederick Alliott

Date

2012-12-07 18:15

‘The N.Y. Times is the paper of record that published and stood behind the Pentagon Papers. Where are you now on the brutal prison treatment and studied legalities being visited on US Army Private Bradley Manning? […] It’s unconscionable and sad if The Times sits quietly by saying nothing.’

Such, in short, is the case against the New York Times, made here by a lay reader of the paper in a letter to the public editor, and explored at some length by Eliza Gray in an article for the New Republic. To recap: Bradley Manning is the Army intelligence analyst charged with disclosing, to WikiLeaks, more than 260,000 diplomatic cables, around 90,000 intelligence reports on the war in Afghanistan and one video of a military helicopter attack — much of it classified. In the last week, having previously been detained in what have been widely denounced as unacceptably severe conditions (including two months in a ‘cage’ in a dark tent in Kuwait, and a subsequent nine months in 23-hours-a-day solitary confinement), Manning has been testifying publically for the first time since May 2010. The Times has not ignored the event completely – it published a short piece from the Associated Press on Friday – but, unlike many other papers, it has not sent its own reporter to cover in detail the pre-trial testimony.

Yesterday’s pronouncement from the public editor of the New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, was typically unequivocal. In stating baldly that ‘the testimony is dramatic and the overarching issues are important […] The Times should be there’, Sullivan appears to give credence to allegations, implicit in the letters and statements that she quotes in her post, that the Times, having gained from the original disclosures, is both literally and symbolically distancing itself from their source.

‘It’s really crazy,’ says Michael Ratner, a human rights lawyer from the Centre for Constitutional Rights, who counts Julian Assange as a client. ‘The key leaker in U.S. history in the last decade, and they don’t cover his treatment? He’s the one whose materials they used and they don’t cover it? I don’t get it. They had to make a decision not to do it.’

‘We’ve covered him and will continue to do so’, was the official response from David Leonhardt, the Washington bureau chief: ‘but as with any other legal case, we won’t cover every single proceeding.’ Analysis in The Atlantic Wire from April 2011 showed that 54 (nearly half) of the newspaper’s 115 thus far in that year had carried stories that ‘relied on WikiLeaks documents as sources’. Pte Manning may be an ambassador for transparency and truth-telling or an dangerously unbalanced traitor, according to taste. What seems to be beyond doubt, however, is that, without the likes of Manning to provide crucial information in the first instance, it is legitimate to point out that ‘newspapers like the New York Times would suddenly see their source of so much Pulitzer-prize worthy material dry up’.

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Frederick Alliott

Date

2012-12-06 19:07

The Times and the Sunday Times are set to merge their online teams, in a move that is being seen as a precursor to a wider, more comprehensive union of the two editorial operations.

As Roy Greenslade at the Guardian notes, the original decision to keep them separate (made at the behest of Sunday Times editor John Witherow, who wanted to keep his distance from the daily title) was strange; the announcement thus signals that, in Greenslade’s words, ‘good sense appears to have prevailed’.

Whilst such a move appears to make sound financial sense – both papers currently make a loss, and consolidating their respective online editorial teams is clearly a step in the right direction – such a change seems to challenge the undertaking given by Rupert Murdoch on his purchase of both titles in 1981 that he would maintain the distinct identity of each newspaper. Indeed, a source within Wapping, quoted by the Telegraph, stated that ‘it is total insanity to sacrifice the successful Sunday operation on the alter of the daily’.

Approximately 10 staff have been made redundant as part of the reorganisation, and have been asked to re-apply for new roles as part of a ‘digital development and strategy’ unit, which would function across both titles.

Sources: Guardian, Telegraph, TheDrum.com

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Frederick Alliott

Date

2012-12-05 17:36

In the first of a series of interviews with prominent figures in the aftermath of the Lord Justice Leveson's report into press standards, I talked this morning with Stephen Pritchard. Pritchard is serving his second term as president of the Organisation of News Ombudsmen. He is the Observer's first readers' editor, a post he has held since 2001. Before taking up the role he was the paper's production editor and managing editor. His speech on Leveson to the World Editors Forum in Kiev earlier this year can be read here.

Editors Weblog: The obvious first question to ask is perhaps the most controversial, namely: do you agree with Lord Justice Leveson when he states that ‘this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press’?

Stephen Pritchard: I do agree, yes. He went out of his way to emphasise his support for a free press, and felt both that this is not state control and should not be seen as state control. 

He said that it [statute] was an ‘essential’ component to ‘protect the freedom of the press, to reassure the public, and validate the new body’. Do you think all three of those reasons are equally valid? 

I’m not entirely certain. I would say that while I respect what he has to say about it not being ‘state control’, if we can achieve what he wishes to achieve in terms of regulation purely by self-regulation, by our own efforts, then that would be preferable to Parliament having to go through the really quite difficult process of drawing up an act which would somehow regulate a body with a very light touch. If between us we can come up with a body that is acceptable both to Parliament and to ourselves then there’s no need for statute.

Cameron’s response in the House of Commons seemed to rely both on principle, but also, as you say, on practice, of drawing up a law that he claimed would be very complicated and might have unintended consequences. Does that argument have the most force?

Well, I’m not sure it has the most force with the public at the moment!

Indeed – 80 per cent of Daily Mail readers would apparently like to see some sort of statute, which seems extraordinary.

Quite. Because they cannot see why we should not be regulated in the same way that television and radio are regulated. We have to ask ourselves why we are holding out against an Ofcom-like body, when in fact Ofcom has, as far as I can see, not had any chilling effect on the investigative practises of the BBC, for instance.

I wanted to talk about Ofcom, actually: that seems to be the thing that has caused most alarm, both in the press and with other groups like Liberty. What are your thoughts about the role of Ofcom in the report?

Well, it would have to be a last resort, if the industry simply couldn’t agree on how to go forward. I would envisage the press reacting very quickly, in the next 48 hours; there are meetings today and tomorrow, between editors, Downing Street and others, to try and reach consensus on this, and to come up with a Leveson-compliant body that doesn’t require statute. An Ofcom option, I would hope, is a long way down that line in the event of us not being able to agree.

It’s a threat, really, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s a bit of a threat. I mean, we’ve got to remember that there’s a readership out there that is pretty disgusted with the way that we’ve behaved. It’s unfortunate, but all of us are tarred with the same brush, and we have to find a way to reassure the public that we have their best interests at heart.

OK. Putting aside the issue of statute for the moment, do you agree in principle with the sort of regulatory body that Leveson would like to see implemented? Is there anything you would change in what the judge proposes?

I like a lot of what he says, but I’m a little concerned about having absolutely no representation for the industry on the body. My concern is not because I want to influence it, only that unless you are working every day in the newsroom, you are unlikely to pick up on the nuances of what’s happening in the press, and the way that we regulated ourselves every day. That voice needs sometimes to be heard when we are discussing a decision that has been made at a newspaper. An experienced hand is often needed to answer questions such as ‘how did that newspaper reach that particular point?’ I do worry that a total absence of industry influence is going to lead to some rather strange adjudications. 

Does that extend to wanting to see serving editors on the new board?

I’d like to see at least one. I just want one voice from the industry there. It could be a former editor, it doesn’t have to be a serving one; somebody with a lot of experience of the way that newspapers are run. Not there always to defend what we do, of course, but somebody there with a personal account of the industry would be useful. 

Does this mean you’ve changed your mind somewhat, in light of the report’s publication? In many of your previous articles you’ve suggested that self-regulation has failed and cannot go on. 

That’s true. I remember at our last ONO meeting in Copenhagen we had [Professor] Stephen Barnett out to speak to us, the academic who’s been behind quite a lot of this. He’s an interesting guy who feels that the press really has got to be regulated, to protect itself apart from anything else, in order to end a lot of the practises that have been going on. Now, I have a lot of sympathy with that argument, but there’s been a lot of talk over here in the last few days about the possible danger of ‘creep’ – statutory creep into an organization, putting pressure on how the press operates. Now, we really don’t want that. At the same time, we have to accept that self-regulation has failed. I mean, if it came to it, if we simply could not agree and Parliament had to put something on the statute book, I wouldn’t necessarily be totally uncomfortable with that. There’s been huge hysteria in some branches of the press in the last two days, saying we’re going down the road of Zimbabwe, that we’re going to be another Kazakhstan – that’s nonsense. We have to wise up a bit, and take something on the chin. From my own point of view, from the job that I do, I’m quite heartened by quite a lot of the report, particularly the areas of the report that say: ‘look, whatever body you come up with, it’s going to be very carefully run, and it’s got to agree amongst itself that it will not entertain any complains from the reader that has not already been to that newspaper and has exhausted that newspaper’s complaints procedure.’ 

Yes, because one of Leveson’s recommendations is for there to be a ‘named senior individual within each title with responsibility for compliance and standards’, which is pretty much your role, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s pretty much what we do. ‘Compliance’ is slightly different, because that is more to do with employment than ombudsmen. But when it comes to standards and ethics, yes it’s what we do. I’ve written this morning to Lord Hunt, who is trying to pull something together to put to Downing Street, saying look: be mindful of this, because if it comes down the track you’re going to need to be well prepared, and my organization can help you in advising newspapers as to how best to go about this. So I hope to get something out of this, that the profile of the Organization of News Ombudsmen will be raised in this country. We’ve been doing this for about 50 years already, so we do actually know how these things work, and how it can best work to the advantage not only of the reader, but also the management of the newspaper.

I’d like to talk a little bit more about some of the other things that Leveson says, particularly on the relationship between the press and politicians. Do you think his prescription of ‘more transparency’ to solve the problem of it being ‘too close’ a relationship is enough?

No, I don’t think it is really. But at the same time I don’t think we want too much steering in that direction. Journalism is a very subtle business, and it’s not about making a little note about every meeting you’ve had with the Under-Secretary of State for Plumbing. It’s much more to do with conversational nuance. Whilst I’m all for accountability and transparency, we have to recognise that stories don’t break because people make notes about them in notebooks, and keep a record of them which is readily available for everybody. It’s much more subtle, and politics works in exactly the same way. The press and politicians will always have a close relationship, and if they don’t, then frankly we’re not doing our job.

With that in mind, Harold Evans wrote a piece in the Guardian the other day saying that the question of media ownership was the one thing Leveson rather ducked out of addressing – does that argument stand?

It absolutely does, yes. But the poor man [Leveson] could have written 4,000 pages, let alone 2,000 pages, on the ‘culture, practices and ethics of the press’. Ownership is part of that, of course it is. But at the moment we have to have a mind to what newspapers in this country and indeed all over Europe are going through: a fall in circulation, vastly reduced revenues, and all the rest of it. So anybody who owns a newspaper is not going to be making an enormous amount of money at the moment.

Finally then: is it your conclusion that the Prime Minister is essentially right to say that statute is not really an option, and that the press ought to have another go?

I think it is fair to say that the press has been cattle-prodded into getting around the table and coming up with something that is going to fine them up to £1 million, that going to be very sensitive, that will demand enlarged corrections: all the things which the PCC has not really been able to do. 

And are you confident that it’s going to work?

No! I mean to say – I don’t know. One of the problems for you is that you’re talking to me in a very fast-paced, fast-changing landscape. There are meetings today and meetings tomorrow. We don’t know what’s going to come out of them, but [Lord] Hunt is determined to get something in front of Parliament, to which Parliament will say: ‘well, that seems OK to us; we don’t need to legislate’. You ask whether I think Cameron was right: I thought he was precipitous. He’d only had the report in front of him for a few hours.

You could say the same about Ed Miliband, I suppose, in accepting it.

You could. But I worry that he [Cameron] said that because of his Tory friends, and because of his very close links to the right-wing press. There are all sorts of reasons why he would say that. We are, perhaps, over-scared of ‘statutory underpinning’. It may have some merits in that it might for the first time enshrine freedom of the press in law.

A sort of U.S. style First Amendment?

Yes, and there’s a lot to be said for that. An Act would push it all together. But nevertheless, if the industry as a whole can come up with a body with real teeth –

Then that is definitely preferable?

That has to be preferable, yes.

And your suspicion is that they will, or they won’t?

They’re going to have a damn good try!

Disclaimer: WAN-IFRA is a supporter of the Free Speech Network (http://freespeechnetwork.wordpress.com/). 

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Frederick Alliott

Date

2012-12-04 17:11

At a time when the British press is liverish with reaction to the Leveson report, it is worth noting the irony that an event of far greater global moment concerning the defence and propagation of a free press is passing almost without remark. At a conference that begins today in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 193 countries will decide whether the International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency, should update its International Telecommunication Regulations in order to start actively regulating the Internet. The web has long been shorthand for sprawling, anarchic ungovernability, a ‘nightmare’, as the Economist puts it, ‘for the tidy-minded, and especially for authoritarian governments.’ Indeed, the agenda appears at first to give some cause for concern; some 900 regulatory changes have been proposed covering the Internet, mobile roaming fees and satellite and fixed-line communications, and specific amendments from Russia, China and some Arab countries (17 of the latter pressing for ‘identity information’ about the senders of data) undoubtedly carry the insidious subtext of censorship and autocratic control.

Some of the most controversial proposals, however, address what some regard as the intolerable economic online free-for-all, until now viewed as inevitable in the web’s current unfettered form. European telecommunications providers and African and Arab countries have indicated their desire to see big content providers pay to send data across their networks, in a concept know as ‘sender pays’. Currently, the absurdity (as some see it) exists whereby an American web firm ‘pays no more to serve data to customers in Dhaka than in Detroit’. As Ethan Zuckerman, head of the MIT Centre for Civic Media, observed: 'In the developing world, Internet access is still very expensive for many people, and access to high-speed infrastructure is uncommon. While we’ve seen a great deal of progress, it’s worth asking whether the models that have worked so well so far will simply scale and include the whole world, or whether we do need to rethink payment and governance models.'

Others vehemently deny the logic of such a view. ‘What they neglect to observe is that in the Internet model, everybody pays to get on the Internet—[people at the] source and destination. The system is symmetric,” said Vinton Cerf, an original inventor of Internet protocols who now works for Google. But this, say detractors, is precisely the problem, because he would say that wouldn’t he: Google and its set of public and private sector partners in the U.S. presently enjoy the lion's share of Internet revenues – whether originating from marketing, advertising, transit and peering, infrastructure, software or hardware. 

Looking past the initial understandable anxiety over press freedom, therefore, and other equally important debates emerge concerning finance, fairness and accessibility. The secretary-general of the U.N. International Telecommunications Union, Hamadoun Toure, said that any alleged limitations to web freedom are 'completely untrue' and predicted only 'light-touch' regulations. Such remains to be seen, and the activities of the conference (and some of its less scrupulous members) must of course be closely monitored. Given this caveat, however, the conference is perhaps better understood as an attempt through international consensus to further the nascent dialogue about how, why, and to what extent the seemingly boundless digital arena ought to be regulated. The force of Ethan Zuckerman’s view, no luddite he, must be consequently be allowed: ‘I worry that the answer pro-open-Net folks often give—‘The Net works well the way it does, let’s not tinker with the governance structures we’ve set up’—is too orthodox and limiting’.

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Frederick Alliott

Date

2012-12-03 19:21

‘Proustian’ is right. As predicted, Lord Justice Leveson’s report, published at 1.30pm this afternoon, is no pamphlet, running to four volumes and over 2,000 pages. What follows, therefore, is an attempt to briefly summarise the findings of the report and its reception amongst journalists and politicians, to be followed (possibly tomorrow) by a longer analysis of its recommendations.

The report itself breaks down into three main areas, the first of which concerns the relationship between the press and the police. Leveson finds that, whilst there was no endemic or institutionalised corruption in the force as a whole, several poor decisions were made during the original phone-hacking investigation. In response, the judge makes a number of minor recommendations, including the introduction of the practice of recording the interaction between police officers and journalists on a regular basis.

The second section concerns the relationship between the press and politicians. On this, Leveson is more openly and robustly critical, decrying the closeness between journalists and politicians, but refrains from naming names, instead talking more abstractly about the development of a culture of inappropriate intimacy over the last 30 years. Here, the central remedy prescribed is greater levels of transparency, in respect of both professional lobbying and private interaction. Other findings include a lack of evidence for conspiracy theories regarding a ‘deal’ between David Cameron’s government and News International, mild criticism of Tony Blair’s New Labour government for introducing a greater emphasis on ‘spin’, and finding Jeremy Hunt, the erstwhile Secretary of State for Culture, innocent of any charges of bias in his quasi-judicial role in the BskyB takeover bid. 

The third area of analysis is the most important and the most controversial: namely, a solution for the future regulation of the press. Lord Justice Leveson is clear that the inadequacy of the P.C.C., the apparent irrelevance of the editor’s code of conduct and the egregiousness of the journalistic crimes rule out reversion to the status quo. He is equally clear, however, about the dangers of ‘statutory regulation of the press’, i.e. of the government having direct involvement of what the papers print. What he proposes, therefore, is a compromise of sorts, whereby the ideal of self-regulation is maintained, but is overseen at an appropriate distance by a statutory backstop. Such a system would consist of a new, independent self-regulatory body, the make-up of which would expressly exclude serving editors or politicians. It would have the ability to impose fines of up to £1 million, and contain an arbitration system capable of enabling wronged parties to seek redress by way of both fines and prominent apologies at low costs. Crucially, its existence would be enshrined in law, validated by a statutory underpinning which would, according to Leveson, be an ‘essential’ component to ‘protect the freedom of the press, to reassure the public and validate the new body’. 

Membership of this new body would be voluntary, but incentivised (with exclusion, in turn, disincentivised). Refuseniks would be subject to the normal costly libel proceedings of the courts, vulnerable to exemplary damages, and ultimate regulation by a more explicitly statutory body such as Ofcom; members, meanwhile, would have access to arbitration that is cheap, fast and fair.

In his statement shortly before the publication of the report, Lord Justice Leveson made it clear that alternative proposals from the press in recent days, notably from Lords Black and Hunt, were unacceptable. In his own words, the latter's effort ‘does not come close’ to what is required. Yet though he was at pains to point out that ‘this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press’, the reaction from both the media and the government suggest that it is this element of his recommendations which will prove most divisive in the coming weeks.

Scenes in the House of Commons this afternoon plainly illustrated this split. Whilst Ed Miliband, for the Opposition, and Nick Clegg, for the Liberal Democrats, supported implementing the judge’s proposals in full, the Prime Minister declared himself, while in favour of the broad thrust of what was recommended, as having ‘serious concerns and misgivings’ about the use of statute, highlighting its potential to ‘infringe free speech’. The leader of the Hacked Off campaign, Brian Cathcart, further emphasised the lack of consensus when he said of the PM’s statement that ‘his failure to accept the full recommendations of the report is unfortunate and regrettable’. It is abundantly clear, in short, that despite the veneer of compromise and consensus which initially dominated the release of the report this afternoon, the thorny, apparently insoluble issue of statute and the spectre of ‘state regulation’ will insure that this debate, as was predicted, is far from over.

Sources for all information primarily based on the BBC, Telegraph, Guardian, and of course the report itself

Author

Frederick Alliott's picture

Frederick Alliott

Date

2012-11-29 19:35

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