Small-scale blogs to be excluded from post-Leveson media regulation

by Stephen Tall on April 20, 2013

A week ago I posed (and answered) the question, After Leveson: which blogs are to be regulated? Answer: no-one yet knows. Well, we do now know.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) yesterday announced a ‘refinement’ of the Leveson legislation included within the Crime and Courts Bill. And it confirms that small-blogs are no longer to be expected to join the proposed self-regulator (though they can do if they wish):

The amendments, which have cross-party agreement, make clear that small blogs will not be classed as ‘relevant publishers’, and be considered by the House of Commons on Monday April 22. … The provisions in the Crime and Courts Bill clauses detail the four tests that must be met to be considered a relevant publisher, which are:

  • publish ‘news-related’ material
  • publish in the course of a business
  • written by different authors
  • subject to editorial controls

The amendments clarify the government’s position on small blogs by further defining the exemption for blogs that are classed as ‘micro-businesses’ – business with fewer than 10 employees and an annual turnover below £2 million. This is the definition used by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Despite not falling under the definition of relevant publisher, any publication that is exempt as a micro-business as a result of these amendments could still choose to join a regulator and receive the legal benefits otherwise only available to relevant publishers in the regulator. That means protection from exemplary damages. It also means that use of the arbitral arm in the regulator will be taken into account by the court when awarding costs.

From a LibDemVoice perspective, this is a good result: it leaves those of us who run the site as unpaid volunteers free to decide whether or not to join the self-regulator once we see what it involves — including what it will cost to join, and the calibre of those who sit on it.

Here’s Evan Harris, former Lib Dem MP and now associate director of the pro-Leveson campaign group, Hacked Off:

“This is a very good result for bloggers … almost all multi-author edited news blogs will not need to join an approved self-regulator in order to avoid cost penalties if sued in court. But in addition, any such news blogs who do choose to join, will get cost protection if a libel or privacy claimant chooses to sue them in court instead of using the arbitration scheme in the self-regulator.”

However, as the civil liberties campaigners at Big Brother Watch have pointed out, the amendments remain problematic:

… the drafting only protects either ‘incidental’ publishers of news-related material, or multi-author blogs. So someone who is not a blog, who publishes news-related material on a regular basis, remains in scope even if their turnover is £10,000. In other words, if you’re a small, local newspaper with 3 staff and a turnover of £100,000 then you’re still a relevant publisher, but if you are a £1.5m turnover blog with 8 full time staff you’re not. Aside from the obvious competition law issues – it locks in the existing publishers by increasing the barriers to start-ups – it is also a fundamental problem that freedom of speech online and freedom of speech offline are diverging so significantly.

So the Guido Fawkes site can remain outside regulatory scope while trading in gossip and scandal to a large online audience, but a hyper-local paper with a small print readership may find itself penalised. Which is why Nick Clegg was this week under pressure from The Newspaper Society to consult with local and regional newspaper titles, whose conduct was praised by the Leveson Report but now to be subject to the same rules as the national titles.

* 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.