Regulator reacts with “weary cynicism“ as UK acts on social media

By Jane Whyatt

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May has set up a special government department to tackle fake news. The National Security Communications Unit is based in the Cabinet Office. It is backed by Artificial Intelligence power to spot any online mention of terrorism, and Home Secretary Amber Rudd has travelled to Silicon Valley in the USA to ask internet companies for co-operation in removing suspect content from social media and search engine listings.

This follows a similar move by French President Émannuel Macron. Germany’s Angela Merkel has gone further and her government has enacted the controversial NetzDG or “Facebook Law“ which requires social networks to remove illegal content within 24 hours or face substantial fines.

Reacting to the British move, the Chair of the press regulatory body IMPRESS  Walter Merricks CBE said he regards it with “weary cynicism“. In a speech in London on 19th February 2018 he accused the national press of hypocrisy: he claimed they were only attacking the social networks like Facebook and Twitter because of the impact those networks had on newspaper online advertising revenues:

Around the same time that old media woke up to the economic threat posed by Google and Facebook, the pages of their newspapers began to fill with the dark deeds of these companies. ..The terrorist videos. The child exploitation. The fake news.The conclusion was clear. Social media must be regulated. This is an unusual turnaround. These newspapers are normally opposed to media regulation. They use the phrase “state-backed” as a term of abuse when referring to IMPRESS.

And in an interview with ECPMF, Merricks claimed that his regulator provided a better solution than either the self-regulation board IPSO which covers most of the British press or new laws and government units.

Q: You’ve made a speech about how to combat “fake news“. How big a problem is it..?

A: There is a serious problem. Social media is seriously disrupting the media ecosystem. We’ve got to regulate social media – they are cannibalising out news. They are taking slices out of the news value chain. We’ve seen a collapse of advertising revenue – the mainstays of jobs, cars and property are moving to social media.

Q: So should the UK and other countries follow Germany’s lead and start punishing the social networks, as in the German NetzDG law which provides for huge fines if social networks fail to promptly remove fake news or hate speech?

A: The role of the criminal law, as in Germany, is not the right approach. But social media do have to recognise that they are content publishers. At IMPRESS we see the value of regulation but not necessarily in a criminal sense.

For example, the Leveson regulations provide for a “relevant publisher“ to be regulated and there is a strong argument that Google and Twitter should be classed as “relevant publishers“ in this sense. (Editor’s note: ’Leveson’ refers to recommendations from Sir Brian Leveson’s two-year inquiry into phone hacking by editorial staff on British national newspapers and the private detectives they hired.)

The situation in the UK is that the Government has implemented the first set of Leveson recommendations but has not implemented the financial incentives for newspapers to take part in the new system. So it is not working as well as it should.

It’s remarkable that the Prime Minister made a speech announcing that so many local newspapers had closed, and launching the Press Sustainability Review, only two days before Trinity Mirror (the UK’s largest newspaper group, owner of the Mirror, Express and Star national dailies) admitted in court to effectively criminal conduct – or at least turning a blind eye to phone hacking. It took a long time for it to be dragged out of them!

There is a very strong case now for Leveson 2 (the next stage of regulatory reform recommended by Leveson). The two events are not directly connected but many if not most of the local newspapers that are closing are in the Trinity Mirror group. Now, I’m not saying that they closed those local titles in order to pay damages and compensation to the people who were affected by phone hacking. But those damages are very substantial. 

Q: You chair IMPRESS which has been established as a press regulator, but it has failed to attract any of the major newspapers. So as a regulatory body it totally lacks the support of the industry, doesn’t it?

A: Around five new publications a month are joining us and we already have 50-plus publishers responsible for between eighty and ninety publications. We have adjudicated on a number of complaints against publications that have signed up to IMPRESS – for example The Canary, The Ferret and SQWAWKBOX. Altogether IMPRESS members have very substantial readerships, around five million readers if you add them all up. They want the credibility that comes from being properly accountable. When we find against them, they take it on the chin. All our publishers can display the Trust Mark (pictured), and it can’t be withdrawn. Restoring trust is very important – you only have to look at the 2017 Edelman Report from ten days ago to see that.

Q: Are you trying to recruit, to take members away from the self-regulatory body IPSO, which replaced the old Press Complaints Commission after the phone-hacking scandal?

A: They are all tied in and can’t get out of it very easily. There’s no chance for the time being that they’ll join us. What was supposed to make a difference was the incentives set out in Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act. If it was implemented, that would protect the smaller publishers.

Leveson wanted self-regulation, not statutory, but with incentives to encourage publishers to join an independent regulator like IMPRESS. These incentives would shield ordinary people from the huge costs in defamation actions. And they would help small organisations that uncover wrongdoing by big organisations. The incentives give an advantage to publishers who choose to be regulated by providing the costs of the arbitration process. If you are sued by a publication and they haven’t got a recognised arbitration system then they won’t get their costs paid.“

Editor's note: The latest call for Leveson 2 to be enacted has come from a former police officer whose voicemail was illegally intercepted, as she accepted a court settlement  on February 5 2018 from the News Group of newspapers. 

Earlier this year the House of Lords voted for a series of amendments aimed at getting the government to reconsider the second set of Leveson recommendations.

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