Fresh from publishing his damning report on journalistic standards in the UK, Lord Justice Leveson has taken to the road down under and made some pretty damning comments about the apparent lawlessness of the social media.
The judge didn’t go quite as far as to suggest that Facebook and Twitter now resemble the Wild West, but he pointedly criticised the medium for its lack of self-regulation. The conclusion he reached is stark: the law should be enforced against rogue tweeters and bloggers too, if we are to avoid a drop in mainstream journalistic standards. Throwaway comments on social media channels undermine the rule of law and could, he believed, lead to journalists cutting corners in order to “steal a march” on their online competitors. Lord Justice Leveson told his Australian audience that there was a “pernicious and false” belief that the law did not apply online, and he wanted that fault corrected promptly.
During a lecture at the University of Melbourne, he laid into bloggers and tweeters and certainly didn’t pull his punches.
He insisted that there was a world of difference between mainstream journalists with a “powerful reputation for accuracy” and social media commentators and bloggers: in his opinion social media postings were nothing more than an electronic version of pub gossip. He may have a point, but that surely that’s a little on the harsh side. Still, in fairness he wasn’t calling for the banning or strict regulation of the medium per se: in his view what was needed was cautious action. If bloggers and tweeters were left free to make whatever comments they choose, then he argued that there was a serious risk that this could lead to the undermining of journalistic standards as some professionals will undoubtedly be tempted to adopt less than scrupulous practices in pursuit of scoops and stories:
“In order to steal a march on bloggers and tweeters, they might be tempted to cut corners, to break or at least bend the law to obtain information for stories or to infringe privacy improperly to the same end,” he argued, adding, “it may encourage unethical, and potentially, unlawful practices to get a story.”
So what is his major objection to blogs and tweets?
Is it the scurrilous nature of some of the comments posted, or is it more a case of a concern for the future of journalistic standards in general? Well, judging by his comments it would appear to be the latter:
“In a culture which sees some act with impunity in the face of the civil law, and the criminal law, a general decline in standards may arise.”
A lack of social media regulation, he believed, could potentially lead to a scenario where some newspapers decide to publish entirely online and move abroad to avoid UK law. So, what’s his solution to the social media problem?
Well, he believes that there should be more creative thinking to ensure the law was applied equally and there should also be more international co-operation to enforce standards:
“It might be said that if we facilitate or condone breaches of the law, and thereby weaken the rule of law by failing to act and to recognise judgements and court orders which emanate from other countries, we encourage the weakening of the rule of law at home too,” he said.
“If we are to ensure that appropriate standards are maintained, we must meet those challenges, and ensure that the media not only remains subject to the law but that it is not placed at a disadvantage where the enforcement of the law is concerned.
“We will therefore have to think creatively about how we ensure that the law is capable of equal application, and is applied equally and fairly, against the mainstream media and bloggers, tweeters and other amateur online journalists.”