Inforrm's Blog

“Britain requires an independent regulator with teeth”, the belated (partial) conversion of the British Press to effective regulation – Hugh Tomlinson QC

For 70 years the British press has resolutely resisted any form of independent regulation. The oligarchs who control the large media corporations have successfully resisted the regulatory recommendations of inquiries from the 1949 Royal Commission on the Press to the 2012 Leveson Report.

But it turns out that this opposition to regulation is not absolute or principled. A succession of revelations about the abusive behaviour of corporations who put profit above accuracy and are suspected of promoting hate to increase their readership has produced a moment of revelation: independent statutory regulation is needed to prevent continuing misconduct.

Unfortunately, the press has not followed through the logic of its own arguments. A Times editorial yesterday demanded legislative action from the Government: telling its readers that “Ofnet” is need to regulate unacceptable online behaviour.  But the regulation would, apparently, not extend to such behaviour by newspapers.

In support of its arguments, The Times makes the false claim it has submitted to “effective regulation” by IPSO – an organisation which has never engaged in any regulatory activity.  The Times would be the first to dismiss wholly unacceptable and ineffective a “complaints body” set up Google and Facebook in an attempt to head off effective independent regulation.

With a small amount of editing, this is the editorial that the Times could have written about press regulation:

Impress Ofnet Needed

Britain requires an independent online press regulator with teeth

Parents researching schools have Ofsted. Rural communities fed up with slow broadband can complain to Ofcom. Householders ripped off by energy suppliers have Ofgem. Internet users Readers of newspapers, offline or online, bothered by hate, harassment, porn, paedophilia, extremism or commercial chicanery online have next to nothing.

Behaviour that is unacceptable in real life is unacceptable in a newspaper. on a computer screen, as Karen Bradley, the former culture secretary, should have has said. That is why the law applies in principle online to the press as it does everywhere else. But in practice it is almost as hard to force the internet giants of Silicon Valley big press companies to take responsibility for what they publish as it is to bring the law to bear on the creators of that content. In any case, by the time police and prosecutors courts are involved the damage has usually been done.

An online A press regulator would aim to protect internet users newspaper readers from harmful content and the monopolistic behaviour of the press barons biggest online names. As things stand there is, as Jeremy Darroch, chief executive of Sky TV, Hacked Off has noted, a complete absence of enforceable standards on these platforms papers. Mr Darroch has written to Hacked Off has urged Matt Hancock, Ms Bradley’s successor, to make the case for independent online press regulation, and it is compelling. Voluntary self-regulation by these companies may be marginally better than it was before this newspaper began to expose their role in facilitating online abuse and extremism, but it is plainly inadequate.

The previous Government promised to implement the Leveson reforms. A proposal to regulate the internet was included in last year’s Tory manifesto. A white paper on online safety is due later this year. It is an opportunity to impose the rule of law on a legal wilderness where civic instincts have been suspended in favour of unthinking libertarianism for too long.  …

As they have grown, traditional media companies such as The Times have not submitted voluntarily to effective regulation by a recognised regulator. The Independent Press Standards Organisation has never engaged in regulation  The press seeks to argue Facebook and Google might argue on this basis that they too that they should be left to regulate themselves, but they have tried, half-heartedly, and failed. Their policies for dealing with harmful content are not standardised as they need to be; nor are they subject to independent oversight. Newspapers, meanwhile, do not stand accused of enabling online bullying minorities, victimising members of the public and or and profiting from the sale of advertising placed alongside articles promoting hate against Muslims. extremist videos.

“Enough is enough,” Theresa May said after last year’s London Bridge bombing. Internet companies could no longer be allowed to give extremism “a place to breed”. She  In 2012 the Conservative Prime Minister told the Leveson Inquiry that the test for press reform was “are we really protecting people who have been caught up and absolutely thrown to the wolves”.  The present Conservative Government can make sure this bold declaration does not morph, like others, into meaningless cliché by insisting that legislation supporting independent press regulation is brought into force for a new online regulator is introduced this autumn.

Having belatedly recognised the importance of “independent oversight” the press should now create a genuinely effective and independent regulator, or join one like Impress which is already recognised as such.