Twit no more

See Tim Toulmin, head of the U.K. Press Complaints Commission, responding to the dustup created when he was misquoted as wanting to regulate bloggers. I was among those stirring dust but I corrected that when Toulmin properly complained. Says Toulmin:

Last week I read on one of the political websites about some twit who had said that a voluntary code of practice for blogs was needed. How absurd, I thought. Bloggers are hardly a homogenous profession; they operate in a naturally self-regulatory environment where inaccuracies can quickly be corrected by other posters; they have (sometimes) transnational followings, yet different countries have different cultural standards; it would be a bureaucratic nightmare to enforce; there is no proven need for one and so on.

But then – horrors! – I saw that this viewpoint was ascribed to me, with some predictably unflattering remarks. The American blogger Jeff Jarvis took to MediaGuardian’s weekly podcast to fulminate against my stupidity. Thousands of bloggers globally rounded on the suggestion, deploying all manner of exotic language.

I’m thinking about writing my Guardian column this week about the means and rights of response and correction in the internet: what’s working and what’s not. Also: Whether libel laws are outmoded when there is a new means of response (credit: Susan Crawford). And what happens when courts — nevermind regulators — attempt to define and treat blogging as media and thus threaten to put a chill on simple conversation? But on the other hand, if we bristle at subjecting blogs to the restrictions of media then can we still claim press protections for bloggers’ acts of journalism? And are codes of conduct worth the pixels they’re written in? Your thoughts?

  • I believe the ease-of-reply argument was raised some 12 years ago in when Brock Meeks became the first journalist to be sued for something he published on the Internet. Meeks had written about a “CyberSucker” email scam. I guess the more things change, the more they remain the same.

  • “the American blogger”…

    considering how you have been absolutely sucking up to the English….

  • Jeff, if you seriously want thoughts, it is my deeply-considered view, after many, many, years of observing this issue, that the discussion becomes somewhere between absurd and cruel. It is not “conversation” when one person speaks to ten, hundreds, of thousands, and the target may have some obscure response off somewhere read by a few friends and family.

    Some people don’t believe in libel law as a matter of principle – they say it’s the province of the rich who don’t need it, that the little guy who might need it can’t fight back anyway, if you’re smeared, just “take it” because attempting any sort of defense will only make the situation worse. That’s one general point of view, and it has nothing specific to do with blogs or Internet.

    Alternately, if one does believe in libel law, then we know (“Power Law Distribution”) that there are vast, enormous, audience disparities, which apply to blogs and the Internet as well as other media. It’s a mathematical fact, and denying that doesn’t make it go away. Some “bloggers” are for all intents and purposes the same as a mainstream media syndicated columnist. How many times have you heard some boast like “I have [huge number] readers, that’s more than [media outlet]!”. And we can’t all have a zillion readers, again, that’s just a fact.

    Sometimes disputes take place between relative equals. On occasion, a weak target can become a cause-celebre. But that such cases exist does not invalid that there’s plenty of situations where a person who is libeled has no EFFECTIVE means to reach any sort of comparable audience. To rebut the idea that it *could* happen, individually, we all *could* win the lottery – but almost all of us won’t.

    Again, there’s an argument that libel law is more harm than good. But for heaven’s sake, don’t tell the Great Unread, who make tiny mostly-unheard squeaks compared the booming megaphones of A-listers, that they can eat cake.

  • Great response, seth. Thanks.

  • Roy Greenslade

    First, at the risk of stating the obvious, there are bloggers and bloggers. Some treat it as public diary-writing; some engage in conversation (often very robust conversation); others consciously commit acts of journalism. Whatever the case all can be deemed to be writing for public consumption and, therefore, must play by the rules. We can’t simply treat what bloggers write in a public forum as conversation. It’s no longer intimate and discreet. We cannot begin a blog with the injunction entre nous. It is being “published” for consumption by others, many others.
    Believers in free speech – who doesn’t? – have to concede that their freedom has to be exercised with responsibility (the old shouting-fire-in-the-cinema example springs to mind). Part of that responsibility, in Britain at least, also means not committing libel, not inciting violence, not committing contempt of court. In other words, bloggers should comply with the laws even, incidentally, if they happen to regard them as iniquitous laws (indeed, even if they are iniquitous): no-one is above the law.
    Moreover, though such a case would be highly unusual and people may be unaware of it, conversations may be constrained by law too. Say someone said to me that X was a paedophile and someone else overheard it and reported the allegation to X, he would surely be able to take legal action against the original gossip-monger. Is that a chill on conversation? Possibly, but it’s never been a contentious matter. It’s accepted as fairness.
    That said, as long as they don’t break the laws of the land in which they are located, bloggers should be able to say what they like, expletives undeleted. But this raises a further problem. A blogger located in the US might well break a British law, and vice versa (though the First Amendment protection has resulted in much less stringent libel laws makes that unlikely). One positive outcome of the blogging revolution might be a reform of our stricter libel laws or even, down the line a bit, the beginning of a global law).
    Libel laws have been misused because they should act as a defence by the little guy against the powerful. In fact, the only libel law users are the rich and powerful, the people we little guys wish to hold to account. What would be unacceptable would be for bloggers to have an untrammeled freedom allowing them to become stalking horses for the powerful in order to commit sneaky acts of libel against others. That, in essence, is a further reason to ensure that bloggers obey the law.