Laurence DoddsLaurence Dodds of the Media Reform Coalition looks at what the Royal Charter on the press means for bloggers and online media. He finds cause for concern in the definitions used.

First, they came for the tabloids; then, they came for Guido Fawkes; will they come for the bloggers next?

Guido and the Index on Censorship certainly think so. In the wake of Monday’s cross-party deal on a Royal Charter for independent press regulation, IoC’s chief executive Kirsty Hughes warned that “bloggers could find themselves subject to exemplary damages, due to the fact that they were not part of a regulator that was not intended for them in the first place.” The artist formerly known as Paul Staines put it more dramatically in his “warning to progressive and liberal bloggers”, saying: “It’ll get you too.”

Unlike much of the media alarmism over Leveson, this could be a fair fear. The initial draft of the Royal Charter defined “relevant publisher” (in Schedule 4, section 1b) as follows:

i. a newspaper or magazine containing news related material, or
ii. a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a newspaper or magazine);

Section 1e defines “news-related material” thus:

i. news or information about current affairs;
ii. opinion about matters relating to the news or current affairs; or
iii. gossip about celebrities, other public figures or other persons in the news.

It’s clear why the net has been cast so widely. Leveson’s supposed failure to consider the internet has become a cliche, and many claim that whatever regulator emerges from his inquiry will make itself irrelevant by ignoring what the Independent yesterday called the “wild west” of the world wide web. The government are clearly trying to sidestep this criticism by throwing a regulatory lasso around internet news. However clumsy and slapdash their solution, it has a point: there is no reason why online news sources like the Huffington Post UK, or the websites of the Daily Mail and the Guardian, should be exempt from the provisions of a regulator.

Under questioning on Monday night, the culture secretary, Maria Miller, offered a more detailed test for what counts as a “relevant publisher”. Broadly, she claimed that relevant publishers would need to be publishing “in the course of a business”; that they would need to be “written by a range of authors” (excluding “one-man bands”); and that they would be “subject to editorial control”.

In theory, then, and as Miller claimed, the Charter would not apply to “small-scale bloggers”, hobby magazines, student magazines, or not-for-profit community newspapers; nor to “scientific journals, periodicals, and book publishers”. In practice, however, this test is not as clear as it needs to be. Does the word “business” mean that non-profits, charities, political parties and campaigning organisations will be exempt? Would it, if combined with the requirement of multiple authors, apply to hyperlocal blogs which are run in spare time but make a couple of thousand pounds a year for their network of contributors?

It is crucial that the Royal Charter apply to online organisations – but equally important that we know exactly who is in and who is out. Whatever self-regulatory apparatus emerges from Monday’s compromise will need to charge a hefty membership fee in order to perform its mandated duties. If small news organisations are unable to bear this charge, they could be vulnerable to exemplary damages, despite the discretionary clauses about “just and equitable” treatment. The government needs to clarify these rules, and fast.

But there is another way forward. In the past, we have argued that organisations with a turnover of below £50,000 per year should be offered free associate membership of any new regulatory body. Small news organisations – let’s call them SNOs – absolutely should have access to the protections of a regulator, including its free arbitration service. But if they can’t pay for membership, they shouldn’t be left out in the cold. So why not let them into the tent?

This could be achieved in several ways:

  • SNOs could apply for a kitemark indicating that they have their own compliance procedures
  • SNOs could be offered associate membership for free or for a massively reduced fee, giving them the protection the law and access to free arbitration but without imposing an onerous financial burden
  • The government could agree to subsidise free membership for SNOs below a certain turnover threshold

The second could be agreed by the new body regardless of what the government does. The third would demonstrate a commitment to free speech and the vitality of localism on behalf of a government that frequently trumpets its support for both causes. Either way, there’s no reason that small blogs and news organisations should not be compliant with the provisions of a regulator. What they can’t do is afford to pay for it.

And meanwhile, the protection from libel threats and financial strong-arming that free membership would confer could be revolutionary for the UK’s small press. This would be, in effect, progressive regulation: protection for all UK journalists, balanced against sanctions on a sliding scale of severity according to the size and power of the perpetrator.

As Angela Phillips, Media Reform’s ethics chair, has said: “This is punitive if you’re a big national paper who makes money out of other people’s pain; for everyone else it’s protective. But it can only be protective if the protection is spread across the small organisations. We cannot have a system that puts a financial burden on very small, struggling publications.”

If the government doesn’t enact these changes, the press can. When it forms the new regulatory body, the UK’s fourth estate must ensure that its protections and services are extended to every UK media organisation, no matter how small. With the prospect of a regulator whose key members are independently appointed – which cannot easily be co-opted as a tool of big media protectionism – this might actually happen. The question is how many of us push for it.

This post originally appeared on the Media Reform Coalition site on 19 March 2013.