Full text of the Government's promise to reconsider press regulation laws and ensure small bloggers are excluded

By Jonathan Walker on Mar 25, 13 11:54 PM in Politics

The House of Lords has endorsed the amendments added to the Crime and Courts Bill by the Commons last week - the measures that had caused some concern among bloggers that they might be caught up in press regulation (although, as I have argued, those concerns may not be justified in every case).

Proposals set out by Tory peer Lord Lucas to ensure smaller bloggers were excluded (and local newspapers too by the look of it) were eventually withdrawn and not voted on.

However, Justice Minister Lord McNally (Lib Dem) promised the Government would consider the concerns that had been raised, and might eventually bring forward amendments of its own to protect bloggers, once the Bill returns to the Commons.

Here is what he said in the House of Lords. I am quoting a long section of his speech, because I think people might want to know exactly where the Government is coming from, and he explains it pretty well. The promise he made is at the bottom, in italics.

In the past week, I have seen some concerns voiced regarding the extent to which bloggers or tweeters may be caught by this definition. I will return to this point in a moment. Lord Justice Leveson distinguished between the often grass-roots, small-scale activity of individual bloggers' sites and social networking, and those activities that have developed over time into more sophisticated, multi-authored and edited news-related businesses. He referred to:

"a number of news blogs--the Huffington Post is an early, high profile example of one, which has developed over the years into something much more like an online newspaper--which specifically aim to bring a range of news stories and views on those stories to their readers".

This is an important distinction. Leveson is describing a press-like operation online. In order to future-proof our regulatory approach, we need to keep up with changes in technology. Any regulatory system that seeks to cover news publishers cannot ignore the fact that the print forms of press are facing real economic challenges, both structural and cyclical, and that distribution methods are moving increasingly online. Reforms to press regulatory systems must take account of the increasing online presence of the national news publishers, as well as press-like news publishers who operate solely online.

In future, the digital world is likely to be the principal method of distribution for much of our news, and our regulatory system must reflect this. It is important because the public have different expectations about different kinds of media, and in taking a regulatory approach we should take seriously those public expectations. Clearly, the online version of the national press, its regional counterpart or an online yet press-like news site, carry very different public expectations when compared with a small-scale blog--or, for that matter, a tweet. Our definition of "relevant publisher" seeks to make this differentiation. It does so by employing an interlocking series of tests, all of which must be met before the threshold of the definition is reached. They are, first, whether the publication publishes news-related material; secondly, whether it is written by different authors; thirdly, whether it is to any extent subject to editorial control; and, fourthly, whether it is published in the course of a business. The definition is therefore intended to protect small-scale bloggers while capturing the more sophisticated, press-like online material that Leveson described.

Equally, the definition of "relevant publisher" is not intended to capture the news aggregation services of operations such as Yahoo! or MSN. Nor is it intended to capture social networking sites where individuals post user-generated material. Nor is it aimed at sites that simply moderate the comments of others, or aggregate a series of blogs without any active consideration of the content, such as the blog-hosting services WordPress and Tumblr. I also clarify that, contrary to some recent reporting, the definition is equally not aimed at covering individual journalists. The definition of "relevant publisher" is aimed at organisations that employ or otherwise commission journalistic content, and, even then, only to the extent that these organisations operate in line with the four interlocking tests that I outlined.

I recognise that people have been seeking clarification on how the legislation could apply to small-scale bloggers, and how the interlocking tests work. This is reflected in some of the amendments before us, and includes the suggestion that there may be a case for making an express exemption in respect of small-scale blogs in the new schedule inserted by Commons Amendment 131. To allow a period of reflection in advance of the next round of ping-pong in another place after the Easter Recess, the Government have tabled manuscript Amendment 131BA in recognition of the concerns over Amendment 131. As part of this, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has agreed that her officials will collate and engage with any issues that are raised before submitting a view on how the test will operate and whether there is a need for a further amendment. I hope it is clear to noble Lords that when this is next considered by the other place, the Government may come forward with an alternative amendment, or invite the other place not to agree this amendment. However, for now, I invite the House to make this change.

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Jonathan Walker

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