BRIAN DOWN UNDER
In the days before the web and all that it has brought with it – email, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and more – far more opinion was disseminated face to face, and one place you could be sure of hearing some, whether you wanted to or not, was the pub. I lose count of the number of wacko conspiracy theories and plainly barking stories I’ve been regaled with by someone propping up the bar.
Back then, you would leave the pub, shake your head at the monumental idiocy of what you’d heard, and as Tone might say, move on. But now, the crackpots who used to inhabit their local have moved online. Some lurk around the comments section of newspaper websites. Others try their hand at blogs, and some of those occasionally manage to construct grammatically correct sentences.
What they are all subject to today that they were not while exchanging gossip down the pub is the law. Just because a blog does not enjoy the imprimatur of a national or local newspaper does not exempt it from the potential for legal action, and just because someone says it on Twitter does not trivialise it to the extent that it slips beyond the reach of the law of the land.
None of this should be news to anyone who has previously engaged brain on the subject, and certainly not to Lord Justice Leveson, whose latest speech made during his stay in Australia has been relayed to the waiting ears of the Fourth Estate, and who has referred to much of what comes out of social media as “electronic versions of pub gossip”. Maybe he visited some of the same ones I did.
And he also considered the potential effects of not applying the law to forms of social media in the way it was applied to print and broadcast journalists. This, he observed correctly, enabled social media users to “flout with impunity the rights of others”, which will also come as no surprise to anyone who has observed the less principled part of the blogosphere at work recently.
Leveson is clearly concerned, though, that this less than upstanding behaviour could cross over into print journalism: “In order to steal a march on bloggers and tweeters, [journalists] might be tempted to cut corners, to break or at least bend the law to obtain information for stories or to infringe privacy improperly to the same end”, and here I don’t see such an immediate problem.
After all, with the best-known political blog scoring a measly 4% trust rating, and for the foreseeable future needing papers and TV to gain real traction for its stories, journalists know they are going nowhere if they allow their standards to drop just to step from the gutter into the sewer. But in the future all may change, and Leveson is right to warn that nobody out there is above or beyond the law.