Be careful what you wish for

Pressure is mounting on regulators to impose greater controls on media – and social platforms. But a rushed or over-simplistic response could pose an even greater risk, writes Meg Carter.

By Meg Carter

Be careful what you wish for
Photograph: Serena Repice Lentini on Unsplash

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated much in publishing this year – for some, the further digitisation of their businesses including the adoption of paywalls; for others, the streamlining of portfolios and rationalisation of businesses. And, just as serious, there has been a stepping up of pressure for regulatory change.

By the start of 2020, concerns about fake news, misinformation and disinformation, hate crime and online harm had prompted the drafting of proposed new controls now wending their way through the legislative process in Scotland, England and Wales.

By mid-summer, however, concern over the spread of misinformation about coronavirus led to calls for the British government to appoint an online harms regulator as soon as possible to hold social media platforms to account, and to “get on with” long-promised legislation on social media to curb social platforms’ power.

And the response of the industry?

Ian Murray: “It is an area fraught with difficulty with no simple answers.”

The warning from Society of Editors (SoE) Executive Director Ian Murray is: more haste, less speed.

“Demanding a clampdown and action now is where the danger lies,” he observes. “It is an area fraught with difficulty with no simple answers.”

Murray is talking about the Online Harms Bill – proposed new laws designed to combat support for terrorism, child abuse, and other harmful matters on the internet – published by the Department for Digital Culture Media & Sport last year.

As part of the widespread consultation that followed, the SoE – pursuing its mission, which includes campaigning on behalf of press freedom, freedom of expression and the public’s right to know (even if sometimes they don’t want to) – expressed a number of concerns.

One was that the bill appeared to go too far, with the risk that future governments would use it to silence critics and voices they do not like. Another was the possible impingement on press freedom, particularly relating to fake news. Both are underpinned by the fear that the call for action now risks quick and poorly thought-through laws.

“‘Of course we’re not trying to restrict freedom of expression or a free press’, they say. And I’m sure most MPs are not trying to do that, but there’s a law of unintended consequences,” Murray explains.

“Even if you do succeed and they say ‘No, we are putting the pressure on digital platforms’, how do the digital platforms react to that? The simplest method – perhaps the only one – is to use algorithms to look out for words and phrases and block them. But that is surely going to stifle debate and may harm the legitimate outlets of newspapers and broadcasters.

“You only have to look at other countries around the world that have tried to do this – France, Australia, for example. They have backed away as it’s so complicated and said: ‘Go for it, Britain, lets’ wait and see what you come up with’,” Murray continues.

“Well, sometimes it’s good to be pathfinders and trailblazers. And sometimes you act in haste and regret at leisure.”

Clamping down on fake news and misinformation all sounds marvellous until you ask who is going to decide what is fake news?

Tackling hate crime

It’s not just the Online Harms Bill that is a focus for SoE lobbying. Also of concern is the Scottish parliament’s Hate Crime Bill, and a similar piece of legislation being considered for England and Wales.

In late September, MSPs’ climb down on Scotland’s controversial Hate Crime Bill, which critics feared would negatively impact on freedom of speech, was welcomed by many. Yet, SoE was quick to point out, concerns that the bill’s free speech provisions are still inadequate remain.

At the same time, when the British government announced it had asked the Law Commission to review the coverage and effectiveness of current hate crime legislation in England and Wales as part of its response to the Gender Recognition Act consultation, the SoE was again on hand – this time with an urgent call for clarification.

Its concern is to ensure the Law Commission does not make any recommendations similar to those in the Scottish Hate Crime Bill that might threaten freedom of expression as it considers whether transphobic hate crime should be considered an aggravated offence.

Hammering home “the importance of a free media – a trusted media that’s there to have the checks and balances on local democracy, to ensure we have open justice in this country, to knit society and communities together” is integral to the SoE’s role, Murray points out.

His is not an argument against the need for positive action to guard against what he calls “the Wild West spread of news and information – a lot if it unregulated” that the dominance of social giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter have enabled. Rather, it is about engaging with the issue with open eyes.

“Clamping down on fake news and misinformation all sounds marvellous until you ask who is going to decide what is fake news? And, what is misinformation and disinformation?” he says.

After that, it’s a short step to some kind of Orwellian Ministry of Truth with officials deciding what is true. “There’s a lot of talk about how there should be support for news of public interest,” Murray continues. “But who decides what public interest is?”

Calls by some for government to take money from social media giants then reinvest it into local and regional media are also a cause for concern.

“Once you take that money, it becomes public money, and once you hold public money, you are beholden to the politicians,” he points out. “What we don’t want to create here is a media that is totally dependent on hand-outs and the whim of the government handing that money out.”

Instead, the media must work harder to build public understanding of the role and value of a free press and also the danger of overly-draconian knee-jerk regulation likely to compromise it, he believes. And in this respect, the Covid-19 pandemic has had what Murray calls “a thin silver lining” – the increased numbers of people turning to local and regional media for accurate and timely information and advice.

A solid platform, one must hope, for future growth.

Demanding a clampdown and action now is where the danger lies.

You can hear Ian Murray being interviewed by Ciar Byrne on a recent episode of The InPublishing Podcast, which was sponsored by Acorn Web Offset, the Yorkshire-based specialist A5 and A4 magazine printer.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.