Saturday 23 September 2017

Media regulation backlash grows

Ian Burrell

Britain's reputation as an internet-friendly creative hub was in jeopardy yesterday as websites voiced their anger at "draconian" attempts to regulate online commentary and news.

Some website founders said they were considering moving their businesses overseas in order to escape the risk of crippling legal costs resulting from their inclusion within press reforms introduced on Monday in a Royal Charter.

The warnings came as several established media organisations signalled that they would not be signing up to the new regulatory system.

'The Spectator' produced a front page with the single word "No". Ian Hislop, editor of 'Private Eye', said he saw no reason to join. "At the moment I'm out," he said.

Four of Britain's largest newspaper groups, including the publishers of the 'Telegraph', the 'Daily Mail' and 'The Sun', were last night taking "high-level legal advice" amid speculation that they might set up a breakaway press regulatory system.

In an email to readers, 'The Daily Telegraph' deputy editor Benedict Brogan expressed the personal view that "we should note the outcome, thank the politicians for their engagement, and quietly but firmly decline to take part".

But the question of internet regulation could prove even thornier.

Threat

The influential Association of Online Publishers (AOP) last night issued a statement to say it had "major concerns" about the charter, particularly over the threat of punitive awards in the libel courts for those who do not join the regulatory system.

The organisation's chairman John Barnes said: "There are major concerns about exemplary damages and arbitration and AOP is concerned that the new system will just not work."

The charter will "undoubtedly have a chilling effect on everyday people's web use", the freedom of speech group Index on Censorship said.

"Bloggers could find themselves subject to exemplary damages in court, due to the fact that they were not part of a regulator that was not intended for them in the first place."

Camilla Wright, who founded the entertainment website Popbitch, said she would be prepared to move the site to America to avoid being subject to a regulator which will have power over websites which produce "gossip about celebrities, other public figures or other persons in the news".

She said: "It would be a massive step to turn Popbitch into a North American publication and get First Amendment protection but it would not be out of the question."

UK government sources said last night that bloggers and news websites would not be forced to join the regulatory system, though they might face exemplary damages in libel courts if they did not.

The system will not apply to lone amateur bloggers but to sites that use multiple authors and operate as a business.

But the confusion and alarm among the blogging community is damaging Britain's reputation for embracing the internet.

Last night, Downing Street urged the main newspaper groups to sign up to the cross-party plans. David Cameron's spokesman said: "The prime minister thinks the right thing to do is to get on and set up the regulator."

Earlier, Mr Cameron insisted he had established a system that was practical and "workable". He said: "I'm convinced it will work and it will endure." (© Independent News Service)

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