Muzzling the Internet

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Is Leveson about democracy? Does it or will it address online media?

“The news media has a material impact on the direction of public policy, as well as the profile of companies and the confidence of markets. The gaze of the news media also has the effect of holding governments, individuals and organizations to account—or at least to scrutiny,” 

writes Andrew Currah in his ‘investigation into the likely impact of the digital revolution on the economics of news publishing in the UK’ titled ‘What’s Happening to Our News’. Basically, the news media have sat themselves on a pretty big throne – one that, however, seems to have a wobbly leg that can tip power off the side instantly. With traditional and social responsibility on the line, as it always is when truth is the promise of journalism, we seem almost dumbfounded at the changes of the digital revolution – a weapon for success or one to topple the throne forever? “The digital revolution would appear to empower citizens and strengthen democratic engagement,” says Currah, and it’s hard to deny when technology gives rise to so many possibilities for whomever chooses to use it, but what is making everyone sweat at the moment isn’t democratic choices made by the audience, but controlling choices made by the press and its negative repercussions. “In certain quarters, the news media is not only failing in its civic function, but is also exposing citizens to sensationalist coverage, loaded with misleading and harmful information,” Currah’s chapter on ‘A democratic deficit’ concludes, a failure which gravely complicates working with political establishments and public figures, something which brought us Leveson.

In Emily Bell‘s article on the Guardian ‘The Leveson inquiry is irrelevant to 21st-century journalism’, she brings up major limitations to the very reccommendations which are meant to set limits themselves: “The relevance of the Leveson report in protecting privacy and curtailing the excesses of press behaviour has to be questionable from the outset, as its remit is both narrow and historic … Leveson deals with the nefarious ways of publishing personal information; it deals with the fallout of incestuous relationships run from the heart of government; and it deals with the personal cost of people crushed by journalism-as-showbusiness. What it cannot deal with is the regulation of the press in the 21st century.” The article mentions an exchange between lawyer Graham Shear and Lord Justice Leveson wherein the web of social media (Twitter and Google in particular) are “described as ‘an extension’ of existing media,” to which Bell has to say: “this is not true now and cannot be true in the future.” A comment on the article mirrors the difficulty of properly monitoring the biggest, most problematic presence there has ever been in the media: “I’m pretty sure that the internet is still impossible to control without resorting to China-level restrictions on it.”

Privacy and reputation seem to carry a price higher than gold (high enough for Lord McAlpine to sue almost half of Twitter), so with the internet and its boundless reputation-trashing power, will the UK eventually follow China’s tight-grip example? Will Leveson’s reccommendations have any effect when there’s still the world wide web to tackle? In any case, it’s safe to say I won’t be retweeting much until I know for sure.