UK press-regulation defines "press" so broadly as to include tweeters, Facebook users, bloggers

UK regulations may soon regulate all tweeters, bloggers, and other people who post on the Internet as part of a new system of press regulation.

Today in London, Parliament is the in throes of a closed-door horse-trading exercise over "Leveson" -- that is, the Leveson Inquiry in to the bad behavior of the British press, whose tabloids got caught illegally spying on people (from MPs and Lords down to grieving parents of murdered children), bribing cops high and low, and otherwise engaging in shenanigans that were pretty awful. Strangely, although all of these things were already illegal (but were not vigorously investigated by cops and politicos who were beholden to the press for lucrative "columns," gifts, and favourable coverage), the English political establishment has decided that the real problem is that the press isn't regulated enough.

The Tories want the press regulated without a specific law -- they favour an obscure instrument called a Royal Charter. Labour and the LibDems want a press-regulating law. All of the coverage of this issue today is about the difference between these two options. What neither of them are talking about is Schedule 4, which establishes that the new rules will cover "a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a newspaper or magazine)" where publication "takes place in the United Kingdom" and relates to "news or information about public affairs" or "opinion about matters relating to the news or current affairs."

In a nutshell, then: if you press a button labelled "publish" or "submit" or "tweet" while in the UK, these rules as written will treat you as a newspaper proprietor, and make you vulnerable to an arbitration procedure where the complainer pays nothing, but you have to pay to defend yourself, and that will potentially have the power to fine you, force you to censor your posts, and force you to print "corrections" and "apologies" in a manner that the regulator will get to specify.

As Alec Muffett writes, "anyone who says 'Yes, but this is all about 'smoke filled rooms' and controlling Murdoch, they’d never do it to bloggers' has no memory of any previous overreach of powers by the state, police or other regulators."

UK Bloggers & Tweeters: Be aware that the Royal Charter re: #Leveson is also aimed at regulating *you* (Thanks, Hal!)


  1. It’s worth noting that they can only fine you “up to 1% of turnover of the publication concerned with a maximum of £1,000,000″ [Schedule 3, 19] for most sites (and especially twitter etc) this is 0. Also there’s nothing in the that says the code covers those who don’t subscribe to it as well as nothing about having to subscribe.

    As far as I can see from the draft of the charter the aim is that by being a subscriber you gain protection from civil legal claims (e.g. being sued) as the regulator acts as an arbiter [Schedule 3, 22]

    There’s also nothing saying that you can only have one regulator. Just which hoops you have to jump through to make one.

        1. I guess it depends on whether it remains as just apologies and how damaging not being a subscriber to a code can be (as well as how expensive it is). I think one of the biggest problems with this legislation is how little it is front loaded, the actual codes are probably at least 6 months off being written. Hopefully it won’t be too hard to create competing boards which will stop it becoming an expensive monopoly for those who run the boards.

  2. The US has screwed up a lot of things, but I think they got that First Amendment thing kind-of right. From the legal perspective no right is absolute, of course, but its useful having the right ensconced so centrally in the foundational documents.

      1. It also helps to not have foundational documents, believe it or not. We do things differently over here, and advocating the US legislative model over the UK’s just isn’t going to fly at this point in our histories. Getting there from here would take a major revolution, and it isn’t going to help with this particular problem right now.

        1. Yes, I believe it. I am certainly not claiming unconditional superiority just because I’m American (I don’t know why anyone would think that /sarcasm). It’s just that the idea that one government body has the power to unilaterally pass any law, or violate any right, on its own is… deeply disturbing to me, *even though* I know that in the U.S. the president and the supreme court are imperfect checks at best… and even though I know that having those limits prevents the U.S. congress from doing any number of reasonable things.

  3. These regulations are opt-in, meaning those aforementioned “naughty newspapers” will choose to be governed by these new rules.

    This will not apply to ‘regular’ Facebook users and Twitter users. 

    1. Entities that don’t opt in are likely to receive extra-harsh treatment as a means of discouraging opt-outs.

      1. Not really, as that would involve a commission that was overseeing sixty million people as opposed to about sixty organisations.  One of those is viable, the other just isn’t.
        That doesn’t mean we don’t need some sort of overhaul of the libel/defamation laws to take account of things like Twitter (and the current legislation being debated is woefully terrible at that) but this is about something entirely different.

        1. Interesting pov.  Why don’t you tweet / update status to “I am actively looking for cadavers to shag” and see whether those platforms are regulated or not.

      2. While that’s possible, is there any evidence this will be the case?  Can the bloggetariat be persuaded not to opt out?

        I agree the proposed regulations as they are look pretty bad, but from the comments it sounds a lot less simple than the original post makes it seem.

      1. Difficult to gauge that interstitial moment between the body cooling adequately for the purposes of my snarky comment above and sufficiently for a regulator to fearlessly step in and fervently apply an illiberal law.

  4. It is worth noting it also covers the websites of campaign groups, PR firms, ordinary commercial companies, lots of people who it will be worth rivals and enemies making trouble for, much more than swarms of individuals. All will be forced to submit to regulation at the first sign of trouble. One quango to rule them all. Just as we were mitigating the chilling effects of libel on public debate, along comes something at least as bad. 

    1. I’d not thought so much on the affect of mid range sites. I think a lot of it will come down to the sort of fines that can be imposed (currently 1% of the publication’s turnover to a maximum of £1M). 

      The real question is whether an site that is essentially advertising /has/ a turnover. 

      I imagine the other likely penalties (e.g. apologise) will be of little consequence (look at what apple did with their apology to samsung)

  5. There is one upside to the terrible overreach–outlets beyond the traditional media are being defined as effectively journalists. One of the problems the US has is that there are only protection for journalists if they work for a recognized outlet. The good argument that I’ve heard is that we should be protecting journalism rather than journalists. This recognition is good if when the rules are finalized or changed that everyone can come for the ride.

  6. Calm down, Cory.
    Did the lack of statutory underpinning save Tweeters who libelled Lord McAlpine? No, they had to cough up. Did it save Paul Chambers, he of the Twitter Joke Trial? No, he was convicted under the Communications Act 2003 (before thankfully winning his appeal).

    If people break the law, they will pay a price. The regulator just determines how they pay it.

  7. Personally, I don’t think this goes far enough.  We should all be required to wear  microphones that record everything we say for analysis.  And when they get the brainwave reading thing done, that too.

    We shouldn’t just sit here and think we’re ‘free’.  This isn’t fucking Watership Down.  The Magna Carta is, like, old.

    1. I’m going to sue you for saying that AND I’m going to get a superinjunction so that nobody knows that I’m suing you.  And I don’t even have to be a UK citizen to take advantage of those laws.  Paradise!

  8. I’m willing to bet this definition no longer applies when you try to leverage the access advantages of being a member of the press.

  9. There’s two things here getting conflated, I think. The overreach problem, and the problem of an arrogant press that has often pursued the ‘news’ without regard for the public weal. The latter thing has resulted in laws being broken, as covered by Leveson, and one hopes that the fallout will continue to involve locking up various people for committing those crimes.

    But the problem of how to discourage journalists and editors from committing those crimes in the first place will still remain when the last cell door is locked, unless something is done about the pitiable state of public overwatch of the media as it stands. That’s what the Leveson inquiry evolved into: not just the mundane act of uncovering wrong-doing, but the process of doing something about the context.

    The Press Complaints Commission in its present form is unfit for purpose and needs to be reformed. Continually casting Leveson and its aftermath as a merely criminal investigation is completely missing the point, Cory, and I wish you’d stop doing it.

    The potential overreach is a problem, but so is the present state of the press (not to mention alleged criminals possibly having sufficient influence over certain members of the legislative body to poison any legislation designed to rein their cohort in).

  10. It says “publish a website containing news-related material”. That might apply to some bloggers if they have their own websites, but how does it apply to Facebook or Twitter users? They don’t “publish a website” of any sort.

  11. This makes perfect sense.  Big Media is government, or at least running it from behind the scenes.  They really have nothing to lose by being regulated by people who are elected at their whim.  This is just an opportunity to suppress opinions from those who can’t afford to buy a political party.

  12. For some reason, I feel like singing The Star-Spangled Banner now … or at least look up Asimov’s essay on it.

  13. Reading the title I thought that this was going to be about expanding protection to bloggers.

    Silly me.

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