Leveson Report – what are the implications for social media?

Lord Leveson delivers his findingsI write with half an eye on Lord Justice Leveson’s hefty report the other half on the Twittersphere’s reaction. A few points come to mind. Social media reaction before-and-after is, predictably, mixed; freedom of speech is held sacred by bloggers and this libertarianism may filter through on social media more widely.

The media prepared for the report in different ways. Apparently the FT have urged staff not to tweet about the report at all but to take a more considered view – are they making a special effort to behave themselves? Meanwhile Channel 4 wryly pointed out that we might be missing stories elsewhere:

An unscientific look at the social media reaction leaves me with a snapshot conclusion that cynicism and apathy are the main sentiments coming through (in fairness, I write at 4pm on a Thursday, so apart from political nerds – hiya! – most people are probably unaware of the story yet). Perhaps “Her Majesty” herself had the best idea:

The report itself is a hefty 1987 pages and a printed copy is rather expensive!

On a serious note, with thousands of amateur sleuths ploughing through the PDF online, it will presumably be a matter of hours before the whole thing has been digested and any interesting snippets float to the top (unless everyone starts at page 1!)

Of particular interest to me was what Lord Justice Leveson might have said about blogs and other form of social media. There are many new issues which have come up in recent years; media organisations have new pressures to deal with our new insatiable appetite for news at lightning speed – with fact-checking procedures meaning that a story could be considered obsolete once it is released. In light of premature smearing of Lord McAlpine on social media, surely it is only a matter of time before some sort of  review into “social media ethics” takes place. Another recent example is the rather ludicrous situation whereby during the trial of Jeremy Forrest, the teacher who ran away with one of his pupils, the name of the pupil is now under injunction due to the trial, while his alleged victim is common knowledge in social media, having been the subject of national news coverage previously.

A number of bloggers, from Popbitch, the Huffington Post and Guido Fawkes, gave evidence at the inquiry. Leveson’s views towards online media are in Volume 1, Chapter 3, sections 3 & 4 if you’re interested! He pointed out that

“The current reliance on collaborative approaches and industry self-regulation does not mean that enforcement of UK law online is not possible. However, successful prosecution relies on considerable  cooperation across a number of agencies, not least the ISPs and content providers, and is most effective where the alleged act is also clearly criminal in the host country”

He did note, crucially, that

“it is noteworthy that although the blogs cited here [Popbitch, HuffPo, Guido] are read by very large numbers of people, it should not detract from the fact that most blogs are read by very few people. . Indeed, most blogs are rarely read as news or factual, but as opinion and must be considered as such.”

On Twitter:

where services are targeted at a given jurisdiction, they will also seek to comply with local law. This can and does lead to conflicts of law, for example, where issues such as consideration of privacy and other related matters conflict with rights under the First Amendment of the American Constitution…

Twitter would enforce orders made by UK courts, in so far as they might apply to UK users, on a case by case basis…In practice, this means that for Twitter to remove a defamatory tweet that was re-tweeted, a court order would be needed in relation to every relevant tweet by every individual unique user who repeated that defamatory content.

Leveson was quick to realise the problems posed by social media when considering mandatory regulation.

“Specifically there are concerns about the ability of legislation to identify relevant
online providers in a world where anyone might contribute to news and current affairs
discussion online, via Twitter or blogs, alongside big news providers (including newspaper

Leveson’s conclusions, at least the parts I have skim-read so far, seem extremely light on the implications for online media (Politico make a similar point). Nevertheless, this conclusion jumped out at me:

I recognise that most blogs have very different processes, audiences and business models to most newspapers, and that consequently it may be difficult to establish one set of requirements, for example in respect of internal governance, annual reporting or membership fees, that is appropriate for all different types of publisher. It is important, however, that all types of publishers should be able to join such a body, and to do so on terms that are not manifestly inappropriate for their business model. I therefore recommend that membership of the body should be open to all publishers on fair, reasonable and non discriminatory terms, including making membership potentially available on different terms for different types of publisher.

So…is it time we looked at the legal issues surrounding the internet on a grand scale? Perish the thought of another protracted Leveson-style inquiry into social media (for Hugh Grant, read Zayn Malik) but clearly there are big issues which are out of control and it can only be a matter of time before someone gets burned badly. Or should we accept that we live in a new, consumer-empowered, libertarian world where anything goes?

The last word goes to a commentator on the Digital Spy forum. “I personally don’t want to live in a country where what the press can and cannot say is dictated by the likes of Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan.”

Eoghan O’Neill is social listening analyst at Ipsos MORI. He tweets at @EoghanLondon and blogs occasionally.