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The Guild of Hacks

Simon Phipps of the Open Rights Group has an interesting take on the government’s new “press” regulations:

When an established publication publishes a diatribe, they provide an umbrella for its author to shelter them from the new threats made available through this new regulatory mechanism. They are already pretty good at shielding authors; as long as they have jumped through the new hoops and behave reasonably, there’s not much more threat here than before.

But when the same writer tweets an opinion, or when I post my opinion about it on my personal blog, this new regulation allows the well-resourced members of the media elite to subject us to weapons tuned for deterring the Murdochs of this world. The penalties involved are out of all proportion to any harm as well as way beyond your and my means even to buy insurance, let alone to pay.

All the talk so far has been about how these “exemplary penalties” will “encourage” (hah!) publishers to sign up to the regulator. But look at it from the other end: it effectively means that large media companies will now be able to offer writers a sort of indemnity cover. Publish something that someone takes exception to and, yes, you’ll have to print an apology compliant with the regulator’s direction, but at least you won’t lose your house. Since they’re better-placed to handle greater regulation, it plays right into their hands. There’s still some doubt about whether the new régime will apply to personal blogs or not, but it hardly matters. As Johnathan Pearce notes at Samizdata, it’s always easier for big businesses to absorb regulation than small ones. Even if individuals are exempt – which will simply accelerate the process of investigative journalism moving away from the mainstream towards individual blogs – smaller media companies are going to be hit harder than the big boys, whose legal departments (do we have one of those, Kitty Kounters?) will have been gearing up for this for months.

In fact, it struck me this evening that what Parliament has done, rather appropriately with a Royal Charter, is create something like a medieval trade guild. While it doesn’t go quite as far as those institutions in actually banning non-members from practicing their craft altogether, those who sign up will have greater rights and privileges granted by the state for being good boys and girls and doing what they’re told, just as the guilds did, while those who don’t will be punished for ploughing their own furrow. The guilds justified their existence, too, by the need for “regulation”. What they meant in practice was that craftsmen who were out of favour, or couldn’t afford to join, became lesser citizens. Freemasonry was born out of this system, as the itinerant masons who travelled Europe building cathedrals banded together to stand up to the local guilds. With the likes of the Spectator and the Telegraph refusing to take part in the new system, the words “free press” seem to take on an extra meaning from today.

So the rich and powerful have their privacy (when it suits them; blanket publicity otherwise), and News Corp. (the Sun’s refusal notwithstanding) will take it in its stride. It’s the small operations, the local and regional papers who are already struggling, whose lives will be made difficult. Ever get the feeling, Levison fans, that you’ve been had?


  1. RAB says:

    legal departments (do we have one of those, Kitty Kounters?)

    Well I have the degree in Law Sam, though fuck knows what use that will be to us seeing how much they have perverted Common Law since I graduated. But I’ll do the best I can.

    And I am also a member of the Guild of Hacks… An NUJ member. Probably the most useless trade union in union history.

    I have no training in Journalism whatsoever, apart from learning on the job… making mistakes and correcting them. And that is still true of most of British Journalists. We write because we can, and because we have something to say, and people are kind enough to pay us for it.

    But you are right, a new Guild is being formed. A closed shop of the “Approved”. Now this has already happened in other lands that consider themselve more free than the UK. America has the First Amendment, but you try and get a job with an American Newspaper or Media outlet without having gone to Journalism School and you will try in vain. The “Control” is already in place there.

    This is why American papers are so boring to read. All the checks and balances that have been learnt religiously makes for very dull copy, and like the BBC, very biased toward the left.

    Counting Cats is out of the loop for the moment, our server is in OZ. So is many others like Samizdata who’s server is in the USA. Besides we are small fry, they won’t come for us yet. But the dead tree press is already dying in front of our eyes. We little guys are the future, and they will definately come for us next.

    Some of the little guys are already standing up and being counted, let’s hope the big ones grow a pair and refuse to co-operate…

    Because this is a midnight hour lashup that has no right to call itself Legislation.

  2. CountingCats says:

    legal departments (do we have one of those, Kitty Kounters?)

    Yes, you.

  3. Sam Duncan says:

    Heh. My point, of course, being that obviously we don’t, but they all do and this will just be something else for them to get their teeth into.

  4. Philip Scott Thomas says:

    Counting Cats is out of the loop for the moment, our server is in OZ. So is many others like Samizdata who’s server is in the USA.

    RAB –

    Tim Worstall is convinced that the location of the server doesn’t matter. That said, his training is in economics, not English law.

  5. John Galt says:

    “Tim Worstall is convinced that the location of the server doesn’t matter.”

    I don’t think Tim Worstall’s viewpoint is definitively correct, but it is within the bound’s of reasonable judicial interpretation.

    Is Counting Cat’s targeted at a UK audience? Certainly there are numerous UK readers.

  6. Philip Scott Thomas says:


    If Uncle Timmy is correct then the target of Counting Cats is irrelevant. Again with the if, but if he’s right then the fact that I’m in the UK reading this site makes CCiZ a UK publisher. That said, good luck to any British authority that tries to enforce English law on an Aussie website.

    As above, Timmy’s background is in economics, not law. And whilst he’s extremely knowledgable in his field he may be mistaken here. Cooler heads may prevail.

  7. RAB says:

    Well if you are going to sue people for punitive damages, then Jurisdicion matters, and Counting Cats is outside UK jurisdiction. This is cold comfort mind, as Gillard is a bigger bastard than iDave, the Boy Clegg and the Talking Horse put together, and has something even more draconian planned for OZ.

    But the get out clause for me is this…

    “publishing news-related material in the course of a business,”

    We are not a business, we do it for free and for the love of it. There is no editorial control to speak of, and no specific audience in mind. We are citizens of the World speaking freely to other citizens of the World. Let the bastards pick the bones out of that!

  8. Julie near Chicao says:

    I should think it helps that CCiZ takes no advertising.

    There was a time when I truly believed that somewhere along the way, by the mid-20th century if not before, the Anglospheric countries at least had learned that censorship (s/ go without saying, government censorship) is a terrible evil and not to be countenanced no matter what.

    And yet, here we all are. And it seems that Britain has the disease the worst, or at least her pols make it sound that way.

    Excuse me now, I have to go throw up.

  9. Sam Duncan says:

    All true, RAB. Oz is next. And yes, advertising counts. I think.

    But I don’t seriously expect them to come after us (yet). However as I said before, this will accelerate the process of real journalism (I don’t necessarily mean us here either) away from the mainstream press to personal blogs. So they will come under fire at some point. We may be long gone by then, but they will. And I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some kind of international witch-hunt, similar to the current one against tax havens, on countries which stand up for freedom of speech don’t protect the innocent victims of harrassment and hate speech.

    I recall reading a novel some years back – it may have been one of William Gibson’s – in which “data havens” played a big part. In those early days of the internet (if it was even public at all back then*), I wondered what possible difference it made where you kept your data on a global network. I get it now.

    *Neal Stephenson has written on the same theme more recently, but it was before his time.

  10. Paul Marks says:

    No enterprise (no matter how big) will be safe from this – after all the main target is one of the larger ones News International, or “Murdoch” as the BBC SPIT).

    The United States is the only major nation on Earth with real freedom of speech – and it is being destroyed by the Great Society Welfare State programs and by the credit bubble Federal Reserve system. Even if a State managed to secede – the population would still demand their “Food Stamps” (Roman Empire indeed!) and their “free” healthcare (and on and on) and they would still be brainwashed by “Progressive” education (even in Texas at least 80% of schools are under leftist control), and on and on……

    If there is any hope for the world, I do not see it.

  11. Julie near Chicao says:

    I wonder if the currently fashionable understanding of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech is not, after all, incorrect. Said understanding being that one may say or otherwise express any thought, feeling, or emotion whatsoever.

    Because the people who point out that slander is actionable under the law are right; but such laws do prohibit free speech of a certain content. (And that goes against the grain for me, because “Congress shall make no law” should mean exactly that: no means NO. Yet experience has taught me that in the messy Real World, it is seldom possible to categorize properly all possible instances. Of much of anything.)

    There’s also our sidebar quote about a positive duty to yell “Fire!” if indeed the theatre is blazing away; which reminds us that there are laws against falsely yelling “Fire!” Which, again, represses free speech.

    So the 1st A.’s guarantee is, after all, constrained and not absolute. This causes problems because certain very vocal people use that non-absoluteness to argue against applying the guarantee against their pet causes. The obvious example is laws against “hate speech.” And I’m pretty sure that one can find some reason why just about any speech is “against the public good” if one works at it.

    So, Paul, keep your fingers and toes crossed for us!

    As for the proliferation of speech codes in quasi-private venues like colleges and universities that accept some government money, and actually private ones such as churches (leaving tax-exempt status aside), private clubs, and such–it seems to me that this is another example of Moral Panic at work. I guess that normally M.P.’s die out after awhile simply because something else novel and titillating comes up to worry about . We hope that will be the case here, but with politically powerful agencies working against it, that’s a tough row to hoe.

    My very first line of resistance is to try always to use the accurate word, not the PC term.

    In this way, perhaps over time we can all learn to be more honest in our opinions and judgments, and furthermore they will become less vulnerable to being warped and twisted because we are afraid to think and speak about them honestly and unevasively.

    Perhaps it will show the PC Nazis that they haven’t won the “war of ideas” after all.

    And it will surely help to protect our First Amendment freedom of speech, because it will much diminish the major and most damaging threat to free speech.

    I hope I haven’t sounded insufferably preachy … I feel pretty strongly about this.

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