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Is the UK government planning to regulate online content?

Posted by James Hammerton @ 1:53 am on 8 November, 2008.
Categories freedom of speech, British politics.
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[Hat tip: Guy Herbert writing at Samizdata]

Consider:

  • This recent report from the Royal Television Society conference:

    Answering questions from the floor at the Royal Television Society conference in London last month, Minister for Truth Andy Burnham said:

    “The time has come for perhaps a different approach to the internet. I want to even up that see-saw, even up the regulation [imbalance] between the old and the new.”

    The idea that the internet was “beyond legal reach” and a “space where governments can’t go” was no longer the case.

    In his final annual lecture for Ofcom last week Lord Currie expressed a belief that tighter regulation was coming. He said: “Ask most legislators today and, where they think about it, they will say that period [of forbearance] is coming to an end.”

    His comments are not so much a call for a new role for Ofcom as a recognition that such a role may be coming. A spokesperson for Ofcom added that decisions would need to be taken by the government, particularly as to where any new regulatory responsibility would lie.

    Ofcom is not pitching for such responsibility. Rather it is highlighting the importance of issues that are likely to arise from this new government direction.

    One such issue is just how practical it would be to put in place any form of regulation based on site – or even page – classification.

    According to Andy Burnham, the introduction of a ratings system for internet content would not be “over-burdensome”. We have asked the Ministry of Truth (aka Department for Culture, Media and Sport) on several occasions how such a system might work and how its Minister’s view that such regulation would be easy to implement could be squared
    with general consensus that it would be unworkable. Or, as one expert put it: “bonkers”. We asked again last week.

    The Ministry did not feel they could elucidate further. A spokesperson explained that as the UK Council for Child Safety on the Internet had only just been set up, and would be making recommendations about regulating the internet in due course, “it wouldn’t be helpful or appropriate for us to speculate about what those recommendations might
    be”

  • This report about a possible power grab for a company at the centre of the UK’s internet infrastructure:

    Ministers led by Peter Mandelson are considering a power grab at the independent company at the centre of UK’s internet infrastructure, The Register can reveal.

    Mandelson’s Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) has asked Nominet, which is in charge of the .co.uk registry, to justify its independence from Whitehall.

    In a letter dated October 15, senior civil servant David Hendon, BERR’s Director of Business Relations, asked Nominet chairman Bob Gilbert: “What arguments would you employ to convince my Ministers that the present relationship between government and the company is appropriate in ensuring that public policy objectives in relation to the management of the domain name system and the standing of the UK in the internet community are understood and taken into account?”

  • Hazel Blears MP’s recent article attacking bloggers (and other commentators) at Comment is Free:

    But with the caveat that politicians always complain about their own political culture, let me say that we are witnessing a dangerous corrosion in our political culture, on a scale much more profound than previous ages, and the role of the media must be examined in this context.

    Famously, Tony Blair called the media a “feral beast” in one of his last speeches as prime minister. But behind the eye-catching phrase was a serious and helpful analysis of a 24-hour broadcast media and shrinking, and increasingly competitive, newspaper market which demands more impact from its reporting – not the reporting of facts to enable citizens to make sense of the world, but the translation of every political discussion into a row, every difficulty a crisis, every rocky patch for the prime minister the “worst week ever”.

    The changing structure of the media is what drives this desire for impact and the retreat from dispassionate reporting.

    And I would single out the rise of the commentariat as especially note-worthy. It is within living memory that journalists’ names started to appear in newspapers; before then, no name was attached to articles. And in recent years commentary has taken over from investigation or news reporting, to the point where commentators are viewed by some as every bit as important as elected politicians, with views as valid as cabinet ministers. And if you can wield influence and even power, without ever standing for office or being held to account by an electorate, it further undermines our democracy.

    The commentariat operates without scrutiny or redress. They cannot be held to account for their views, even when they perform the most athletic and acrobatic of flip-flops in the space of a few weeks. I can understand when commentators disagree with each other; it’s when they disagree with themselves we should worry.

    There will always be a role for political commentary, providing perspective, illumination and explanation. But editors need to do more to disentangle it from news reporting, and to allow elected politicians the same kind of prominent space for comment as people who have never stood for office.

    This brings me to the role of political bloggers. Perhaps because of the nature of the technology, there is a tendency for political blogs to have a Samizdat style. The most popular blogs are rightwing, ranging from the considered Tory views of Iain Dale, to the vicious nihilism of Guido Fawkes. Perhaps this is simply anti-establishment. Blogs have only existed under a Labour government. Perhaps if there was a Tory government, all the leading blogs would be left-of-centre?

    There are some informative and entertaining political blogs, including those written by elected councillors. But mostly, political blogs are written by people with a disdain for the political system and politicians, who see their function as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and perceived hypocrisy.

    Unless and until political blogging adds value to our political culture, by allowing new and disparate voices, ideas and legitimate protest and challenge, and until the mainstream media reports politics in a calmer, more responsible manner, it will continue to fuel a culture of cynicism and despair.

Could it be that the government does not like being subjected to the scrutiny that many bloggers and commentators now provide?

I intend to write a direct response to Blears’ article later. In the meantime, below are links to some of the online responses to Blears’ article:

1 Comment

  1. Bleeting Blears speech about the media is to obfuscate the real meaning behind her attack - it’s less about the media (mainstream anyway) and more an attack on the freedom of speech. And ask for her ridiculious comment on bloggers being responsible for political disengagement, I argue the opposite. It has brought a generation lost to spin back to life reigniting public debate outside the confines of a two party politic - giving voice to those people who previously had none.
    My suggestion is that the government clean up their act instead of creating and enforcing new ones. Hazel would do well to remember that she and her government work for US and are there at OUR convenience.

    Comment by Jamie — 20 November, 2008 @ 2:00 pm | Edit This


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