Everyone knows that the publishing landscape has changed forever thanks to the internet. The rise of blogs and free blogging software has radically brought down the cost of getting your opinions onto the internet and many blog based sites (such as the Huffington Post) have made lots of money out of the move.
But there’s a big fear that the Government’s new press regulations could potentially threaten small blogs by including them in the legislation. If they don’t sign up to the new regulator they risk high fines if sued by libel by an aggrieved reader. The key test is if it is ‘a relevant publisher’, generating news material where there is an editorial structure giving some control over publication. So by that token, this blog is irrelevant when posted to my own site (though you probably knew that anyway). Except that when it is republished on the Cabume website there is then some editorial control so it suddenly becomes relevant. Essentially if I libel someone Cabume carries the can.
Obviously a small blog wittering on about startups, PR and technology is unlikely to be sued, no matter how relevant it is. But for other smaller, blog-based sites, particularly political ones this opens up a stark choice – sign up to the regulator and face an arbitration system that is focused on protecting individuals who complain or risk crippling fines. It is the same for local newspapers, already suffering due to the rise of the internet. Given the work they do in uncovering local political, public sector and business corruption their trade body The Newspaper Society believes the regulations would ‘inhibit freedom of speech and the freedom to publish’.
My own opinion is that the internet cannot be beyond the law. In the same way that the Lord McAlpine Twitter libel case showed that you can’t repeat false allegations and expect to get away with it, neither should you be able to libel someone on your blog with impunity. But the new regulations throw up a number of questions – what happens if your content is on a US server? Why are student publications exempt? Will journalists set themselves up as one man/woman band blogs to get round regulation? There has to be a more flexible way of regulating online content in the internet age – my relevant/irrelevant fear is that lawyers will be the chief beneficiaries of the new regulations rather than either press freedom or genuine victims of press intrusion.
The current Oracle vs Google patent case could turn out to have far-reaching implications – not for whether Google’s Android operating system breaches Oracle’s Java patents but on the independence (or otherwise) of bloggers and other commentators.
Essentially the judge in the case has ordered both sides to reveal the names of reporters, bloggers and other industry experts they may have paid as he was concerned that supposedly impartial commentary was biased by links to the two industry giants. Oracle has named a blogger and a professor it has financial ties to but so far Google hasn’t provided details of any paid relationships.
First off, a quick public service announcement – I’m not paid by either Google or Oracle (nor the judge in the case for that matter), so my opinions in this blog are very much my own.
When blogs began they promised to give a voice to a much wider group of people, outside traditional media, enabling them to share their thoughts and opinions with the world. Generally they didn’t have any formal journalistic training and were unpaid/doing it as part of a wider role. It wasn’t their main livelihood. But almost immediately lines began to blur – leading journalists launched their own blogs (either officially or unofficially) to talk about stories that didn’t make it into their mainstream output and the influence of successful bloggers/blog sites (think Huffington Post, Guido Fawkes) spread to rival existing news sources.
The combination of this with a 24 hour news media desperate for interesting comment means that more and more bloggers are quoted as experts without any real check on their credentials. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the more advanced amongst the PR industry who realised that it opens up a whole new channel to influence – whether through providing early sight of news or, as is alleged in this case, financial inducements to write positive stories.
So it isn’t surprising that the possibility is there for bloggers to be biased in what they cover – particularly as they need to earn a crust through consultancy and other activities. While it is clunky, the only way to get round this is to publish a list of any links (financial or otherwise) to companies they talk about – and equally journalists, analysts and other influencers should declare their relationships to anyone they are writing about. As an ex-history student I know that everything we write or think is biased in some way, whether due to our background, education or the fact that Google Docs went offline at a crucial moment. At least by displaying relationships and potential bias readers can make an informed decision on how much credibility they give a blog, article or statement.