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?