Bloggers unite to oppose “botched late-night drafting” that proposes new press/web regulation

by Stephen Tall on March 24, 2013

I’m one of 17 signatories (on behalf of LibDemVoice) to a letter published in Saturday’s Guardian, reproduced below, which opposes the “fundamental threat” of the draft legislation approved this week by MPs of all parties which would regulate blogs and other small independent news websites.

It’s not often you’ll see us, ConservativeHome, LabourList, Guido Fawkes, Liberal Conspiracy and Political Scrapbook agree on something. But what we term the “botched late-night drafting process and complete lack of consultation” has, for once, brought us together. And, as the letter notes, perhaps even more remarkably got Tom Watson and Rupert Murdoch agreeing, too.guardian letter - march 2013

Here’s how The Guardian reports our letter and the next moves aiming to un-do some of the mess created by MPs’ shambolically rushed law-making on Monday:

The fear that bloggers and small-scale enterprises would be drawn into the Leveson net of regulation has provoked outrage. A diverse group of bloggers including ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie, LabourList’s Mark Ferguson, Guido Fawkes’s Paul Staines, Lib Dem Voice’s Stephen Tall and Political Scrapbook’s Laurence Durnan, in a letter to the Guardian, warn of the unforeseen consequences of the law. … Labour and Lib Dem sources said they would be tabling manuscript amendments to the crime and courts bill in the Lords to remove the threat. Two separate proposals have been suggested, either removing small businesses from the ambit of the proposed legislation or making it clear that not for profit groups would be excluded. It is thought both proposals in the eyes of civil servants have technical deficiencies, or will prevent opportunities for big media to circumvent the exemplary damages legislation. Instead civil servants are working on proposals based on either size or turn-over.

I think readers know my views on the post-Leveson legislation by now: that its well-meaning attempts to stick up for the victims of press excess are a dangerous infringement of free speech. Many of you, I know, disagree with me on this. What may be less contentious is that such legislation has to be very carefully thought-through if it is to avoid unintended consequences. That has not happened here, as Hacked Off itself has conceded.

Where does the majority of the blame for this cock-up lie? Here’s Paddy Ashdown’s take (via the same Guardian report):

… Paddy Ashdown [claims] David Cameron made a colossal “strategic blunder” in pulling out of talks on the creation of a new regulator for the press. Lord Ashdown said the Prime Minister had simultaneously damaged his standing with his own MPs, angered his supporters in the newspapers, and strained relations with his Lib Dem coalition partners. In an interview with BBC Radio 4′s The Week In Westminster, he said Mr Cameron managed to achieve the “Tory nightmare” of forcing Nick Clegg to line up with Labour. “I have not seen an avoidable strategic blunder made by a British prime minister or indeed the leader of a British political party which matches that of Mr Cameron over Leveson,” he said . “He marched his troops up to the top of the hill and then he had to march them back down again. In terms of strategy, this seems to me to make the Grand Old Duke of York look like a military genius.”

Botched draft that threatens the blogosphere

The Guardian – 23 March, 2013

The Leveson inquiry was set up to address “the culture, practices and ethics of the press, including contacts between the press and politicians and the press and the police” (Comment, 19 March). Our views diverge on whether the outcome of the Leveson process – and the plans for a new regulator – are the best way forward. But where we all agree is that current attempts at regulating blogs and other small independent news websites are critically flawed.

The government has defined a “relevant publisher” for the purposes of press regulation in a way that seeks to draft campaign groups and community-run websites covering neighbourhood planning applications and local council affairs into a regulator designed for the Guardian, Sun and Daily Mail. Even the smallest of websites will be threatened with the stick of punitive “exemplary damages” if they fall foul of a broad range of torts, encompassing everything from libel to “breach of confidence”. The authors of these proposals should reflect on their remarkable achievement of uniting both Tom Watson and Rupert Murdoch in opposition.

This appears to be the outcome of a botched late-night drafting process and complete lack of consultation with bloggers, online journalists and social media users, who may now be caught in regulations which trample on grassroots democratic activity and Britain’s emerging digital economy. Leveson was meant to be focused on the impact of “big media”. In the end it may come to be seen as a damaging attack on Britain’s blogosphere, which rather than being a weakness in British politics, has proved time and time again that it is a real strength.

We will all continue to write, campaign, cajole, amuse and irritate online. But we consider the current proposals a fundamental threat to doing just that.

Mark Ferguson LabourList
Tim Montgomerie ConservativeHome
Stephen Tall LibDemVoice
Laurence Durnan Political Scrapbook
Paul Staines Editor, Guido Fawkes’ Blog
Harry Cole News Editor, Guido Fawkes’ Blog
Alex Wickham Reporter, Guido Fawkes’ Blog
Sunny Hundal Liberal Conspiracy
Jag Singh Messagespace
Neal Lawson Compass
Nick Pickles Director, Big Brother Watch
Jim Killock Executive director, Open Rights Group
Emma Burnell Scarlet Standard
Adam Bienkov
Luke Akehurst
James Bloodworth Left Foot Forward
Jon Lansman Leftfutures

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.