Press regulation comment: Did someone mention the internet?

By Nick Pickles

As the bell tolls for press freedom, the realisation that a whole host of tiny websites, including Big Brother Watch, would be covered by the provisions of the new press regulator is dawning on Westminster.

On Monday, the Lords will vote on the legislation "underpinning" the Royal Charter on press-self regulation. They will determine who is to be a 'relevant publisher'. At present this risks catching broadly any site that has more than one author, carries news or information about current affairs, or gossip about celebrities, and has some kind of editorial control.

We are urgently trying to garner support for an amendment to exclude small organisations from the provisions of what is already becoming an unwieldy and unpredictable piece of legislative horse trading. We have until 3pm today for it to be tabled in the Lords.

As the tin pot dictators of the world eagerly await the opportunity to introduce their own 'statutory underpinning' to shackle the media holding them to account, we can but only hope that the Lords will take the opportunity to ensure that small organisations, local micro-newspapers and embryonic blogger sites are not cast into the same chaos as the large newspapers will imminently face.

Those of us who cannot afford lawyers may decide we cannot afford to take our chances.

Particularly when the issue of exemplary damages, levied solely because someone did not join a regulator, is taking into account it is impossible to deny a chilling effect. Like many others, I believe this is a step too far.

The fear of ending up on the wrong side of an exemplary award for a small website, especially one focusing on a controversial issue or local authority, may well prove to be too great and they will simply not take the risk. The only people who benefit are those seeking to avoid scrutiny. Our democracy will be poorer.

This is not an ideal situation – as with most things formulated in meetings at 2am – and it would make much more sense for this to be handled rationally and thought through properly.

Our amendment introduces an exemption for organisations which are deemed to be small by the test under the Companies Act. This amendment protects a few, but the principle has already gone.

For centuries we have underpinned our democracy with a free press, now the free press will be pinned down by parliament. We can only hope that the newspaper industry, as the Spectator, New Statesman and Private Eye have already said, collectively walks away from this debacle and we can revisit it in the hope that calmer heads prevail.

Nick Pickles is the director of Big Brother Watch

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