Now, I’m not going to do this, you understand, but …
What if I set up a website – let’s call it Scumbag – and got it hosted on a web server in the United States. Scumbag would be explicitly committed to publishing stories about UK celebrities obtained by fair means or foul that involved the most outrageous breaches of privacy, would be explicitly racist, misogynist and homophobic, would campaign relentlessly in favour of climate-change denial and reduction of welfare payments to supposed scroungers, and would never allow anyone it traduced to reply (let alone publish apologies). Familiar profile?
Although Scumbag would concentrate entirely on UK stories, as its sole proprietor I would not be resident in the UK but in Sicily. Scumbag would have no UK employees (though it would use UK freelances) and it would not register the website with any UK regulator.
The question is this: is there anything in any of the proposals currently being made for UK press regulation – including the Leveson-lite compromise that seems to have been agreed by the party leaders last weekend – that would stop Scumbag in its tracks?
I don’t think so. Scumbag would no more be published in the UK than the New York Times is published here – but it would be available to anyone with an internet connection. I’d be in Italy, ogling the girls on the beach and smoking big cigars. Scumbag’s UK freelances would be vulnerable to libel actions in the UK, but the cunningly clever ruse of not giving them bylines and refusing to identify them when anyone contacted HQ in Sicily would make them very difficult to sue. They would also of course be subject to the criminal law in the UK, but if they got caught hacking phones or trespassing in the grounds of royal properties it would be their look-out. No (overt) legal support, though Scumbag would reward initiative generously…
OK, that’s enough grim fantasy – though to be honest, we’re almost there already with dreck like the Guido Fawkes blog and Press TV available to anyone with a smartphone. You’d need a good business head for Scumbag to wash its face as an enterprise, but it already looks an awful lot easier than publishing a highbrow leftwing dead-trees weekly or fortnightly.
But if you do want to publish a highbrow leftwing dead-trees weekly or fortnightly – let’s call it Tribune – in Britain, old-style, and you don’t have big money or even small money, and it’s difficult getting it legalled every issue because you’re broke, all of the proposals put up by self-styled reformers post-Leveson are grounds for panic. You don’t have a Scumbag escape.
Most of the reformers are media studies academics who last worked as journalists 30 or more years ago and have had little published – except think-pieces on media reform and dull stuff in academic journals – for more than two decades. They’re all in favour in theory of insurgent journalism, investigations and all the rest, but they’ve not done any real journalism themselves for ages and are pretty much clueless about how the media have changed since the arrival of the internet. For the best of academic reasons circa 1987, they’re focused on the big players of the late 20th-century, the Murdochs and the Rothermeres. But they don’t know about the internet, and they are barely aware of the minnows on the edges of commercial viability.
And actually, it’s the internet and the minnows that matter. Leave grand principles aside. How much is it going to cost to sign up for being part of the regulatory system that would allow participants in a Leveson-type scheme to avoid being subject to exemplary damages in libel actions if you don’t join – something backed by all parties right now? If it’s twenty quid a year, maybe cough up. If it’s £2,000? Well, that’s the difference between survival and death, so bollocks to that.
As for the idea that third-party complainants – people who think a piece is outrageous for one reason or another though it has nothing directly to do with them – should be given rights to reply or to moan at length that can be enforced by a regulator or a court of law? Bollocks again, to the Freedom Association, the East London Mosque, the British National Party, the various publicists for Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Socialist Workers Party, who have no right whatsoever to any kind of reply from Tribune or my blog apart from the opportunity of contributing to the letters page or comments, with publication at the editor’s – in the case of this blog, my – discretion. And if they don’t like that, they can stick it wherever they want.
The would-be regulators are sad old men with leather patches on the elbows of their tweed jackets. Hacked Off, the campaign to support the victims of phone-hacking, has been very successful in getting party political support for its proposals to clamp down on the press as it remembers it in the 1980s. But it should be told to get lost. It’s now dangerously past-it.