Baroness Buscombe, the Press Complaints Commission and the Internet: Hard Questions

Baroness Buscombe, the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, gave a speech this week to the Society of Editors, followed by some comments to Ian Burrell of the Independent about a desire to “regulate the blogosphere “.

The Baroness has taken several steps backwards from her previous statements to Mr Burrell, and has attempted to emphasise that any proposals would be “voluntary”.

I am sceptical as to whether this is a true change of mind, or a simply more nuanced journey aiming for the same destination by a more circuitous, and perhaps better hidden, route. Ian Burrell has pointed out that he had a direct interview with her for 40 minutes, so making that mistake would not be easy. However, that has been addressed elsewhere by perhaps hundreds of people, with a vigorous collective letter from hundreds of bloggers.

For me, in addition to the “will we … won’t we … will we … won’t we … regulate the bloggers” game of Hokey-Cokey, this affair has highlighted a number of problems with both the Press Complaints commission, and perhaps with Baroness Buscombe herself.

Firstly, the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission is a position which surely depends on political and commercial neutrality. Perhaps it can only be compared to that of Speaker of the House of Commons. How is it possible for a Peer who takes the whip for a political party to be neutral?

Secondly, despite the Chairman of the PCC clearly needing to be a neutral figure, Baroness Buscombe used her speech to the Society of Editors to make party political points.

Thirdly, having read Baroness Buscombe’s speech to the Society of Editors, I think that her, and the PCC’s, level of knowledge and understanding about the Internet is open to question.

And finally, Baroness Buscombe applauds the aggressive media investigations of the House of Commons, and MPs’ Expenses, yet suggests that they need to lay off the House of Lords – where she is a member; this at a time when the finanical skeletons have begun to emerge, creaking, from their Lordships’ cupboards into the light of day. That is a double standard.

Let me illustrate this with a few extracts.

Political Neutrality

Baroness Buscombe opens with a recounting of her experience as a Shadow Minister fighting the current Labour administration, including:

Of course the fact that unfortunately we do have such a dysfunctional democracy – particularly given the House of Commons appears almost entirely to have forgotten what they are there for – means it is vital that the press is free to investigate and probe and tell it like it is.

You can rightly feel proud that, from unraveling the government’s misleading spinning of intelligence in the Iraq War to exposing uncensored details of MPs’ expenses, the British press has filled the democratic deficit in recent years.

Does this partisan accusation, whether true or not, have any place in a speech by the person who is ultimately responsible for determining the accuracy or otherwise of such claims made by newspapers?

And why has she not, at the very least, resigned the Conservative whip?

Understanding the Internet

Baroness Buscombe, on news aggregators and search engines:

Together the press, all commercial broadcasters, film, book publishing and music industries must now work together to find a new business model with the Search Engines. The latter, the aggregators, think it is ok to enjoy the use of all your valuable intellectual property and ad revenues for little or no return.

This statement is simply untrue. Major aggregators do *not* use *all* of the intellectual property of newspapers and media. Google, which is attacked by the Baroness in the following paragraph, runs the Google News service.

Google News takes 1) a headline, and 2) up to around 155 characters of text.

It must be very depressing for journalists who spend a whole week creating a 5000-word article to realise that only the first 2 lines and the subeditor headline are of any value !

Further, Google offers a complete opt-out service, either from having articles included in the site’s cache, or from having a site indexed altogether. I use it myself on the Wardman Wire to prevent caching, since I have taken the trouble to invest in a high-quality server and want the visitors to come to my site rather than read the Google cache.

If services such as Google News are covering content from newspapers and the media, it is simply because those newspapers have made a decision to allow Google to do so.

The issue of aggregators and search engines, and their impact on the revenues of newspapers, has been one of the very highest priorities of the industry for months, and it is worrying that the head of the PCC hasn’t got to grips with the basic concepts involved after 6 months with the organisation (Wikipedia quotes her start date as April 2009).

Leave their Lordships Alone

Baroness Buscombe on the Commons, and the importance of vigorous scrutiny:

I know that this is not a popular message with many of my fellow Parliamentarians, some of whom are bruised by recent coverage, but we must consider the MPs’ expenses furore as a whole, and not focus on individual injustices.

What is the main lesson to be learned?

Surely, it is that the absence of scrutiny in the first place allowed a culture of abuse to flourish. If trust in politics is at a low ebb, it is because there has been too little freedom to shine a light on politicians’ activities, not too much.

However, about 4 paragraphs later the tone of Baroness Buscombe’s speech changes:

Which leads me to the House of Lords. I may be partisan, but is it really in anyone’s interests for the media to be party to the undermining of our Second Chamber – one of the few platforms in this country where people can stand up and say what they believe without fear or favour?

This is astonishing at a time when the light of day is at last shining on abuses of the Expenses system in the Upper Chamber. This is not a good recommendation for a Press Regulator who is trying to declare her support for strong investigation by journalists.

And that letter …

The letter should should still be signed by as wide a range of bloggers as possible, because – even if we take Baroness Buscombe’s new position as being the real one – the PCC and the Baroness clearly need someone to explain to them how the Internet works.

Wrapping Up

You can find the letter and the argument behind it, and sign up, here at Liberal Conspiracy .

Before signing, I’d encourage readers to read the whole speech and judge my comments in their full context.

At present this riposte has been driven largely by bloggers in the political niche; I’d particularly encourage bloggers in the media and journalism areas to offer their support.

But the bloggers who I really want to sign up are those for either the Society of Editors, or the Press Complaints Commission.

Unfortunately, neither of them has a blogger. Perhaps that would be a good first step to find out more about the internet before Baroness Buscombe makes another speech.

They presumably already have an insight into how quickly the online community can react when necessary.

Further Coverage

  1. Mark Pack has a slightly less pointed critique of Baroness Buscombe’s speech.
  2. Roy Greenslade has three articles about the “blog regulation” incident.
  3. The Heresiarch has a different angle entitled “Bloggers Repel Boarders“. Ooh-arr, me hearties.
  4. Liberal Conspiracy has the “Unity letter“.
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6 thoughts on “Baroness Buscombe, the Press Complaints Commission and the Internet: Hard Questions

  1. Paul Bradshaw

    The regulation of blogging is a distraction here, and I think you make much more important points. It’s clear that Buscombe either does not understand how Google makes money, or is happy to perpetuate the myth of the Great Parasite for a different aim, which is: “We’ll have some of that please.” I am particularly baffled by the quote she uses from Eric Schmidt which says they put the user first and not, she points out, content creators, as if that somehow condemns Google. It demonstrates a particularly curious inward-looking perspective, that values content and copyright over the public that it is supposed to inform. Weren’t newspapers supposed to serve their readerships as well? Or did that change while I wasn’t looking?

    Reply
  2. Matt Wardman

    The Mark Pack piece is a good analysis (as ever).

    I think that the letter is right in pointing out that media standards are nothing special, but then I’ve been saying for months that a priority for quality went out of the window some time ago.

    I think that the blogosphere has more both higher and lower standards than most parts of the MSM, depending where you look – but that is because it is more diverse, although we do have a far better accountability culture.

    I’d disagree slightly on the “regulation of blogging”; it comes back every so often, and everytime they get caught it’s “I didn’t mean it really”. It was an excellent thing that Unity did a riposte quickly enough so that a joint response could get into the news cycle; we don’t always manage it.

    On the PCC, I find parts of the speech simply baffling. Surely political neutrality is simply necessary?

    Reply
  3. Paul Bradshaw

    As the Heresiarch post puts it so well, I think regulation will creep towards bloggers one way or another, so I do think it’s an issue, but the PCC are the least likely candidates.

    Reply
  4. Pingback: What I was told when I asked about blogs joining the PCC | Online Journalism Blog

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