I’ve been reading the Law Commission report that proposes a News Media Standards Authority to – voluntarily – cover all news agencies, including blogs. It’s a bit sad, really. It’s clearly been written by a group of old white men with no real idea now modern media works.
Let’s start with principles. They want to make you pay to join a ‘voluntary’ privately-owned organisation, which will be the gatekeeper for who gets the news media’s legal rights. It won’t even be a statutory body – it will be completely separate from government and make its own rules, yet it will be the decider on a slew of legal rights.
Don’t have money to pay? You don’t get those legal rights. Don’t want to pay? You don’t get those legal rights. Don’t meet this private, unaccountable organisations’ rules? You don’t get those legal rights.
Of course, there are some old bodies that have those kinds of powers and similar unaccountability – the descendents of guilds like the Law Society, but these are established by statue and their powers and rules are thereby constrained.
This NMSA organisation would be run by people who are not appointed by either government or the new industry – I’m guessing these perfectly impartial experts would descend from heaven riding on unicorns.
The Law Commission’s genius idea is to let some private organisation staffed by God knows who choose which news organisations have news media rights and which don’t. It’s one of the dumbest things I’ve heard this year.
Next, the practical side. They basically want to extend the existing press complaints system, joke that it is, to online media. Bringing a complaints process to the blogs would be an unworkable farce. Here’s what would happen.
There would be a dozen complaints a day against each of the major blogs. Each side would attempt to tie the other in knots, costing it time and money fighting against complaints. Blogs (assuming they can afford to join the authority in the first place, there’s no indication of the cost) would react by disengaging from the complaints process, if only so they wouldn’t exhaust their time and money fighting nuisance actions, meaning nothing would ever get sorted. If anything ever got decided, it would be ignored – blogs could always quit NMSA – not that it could impose any real punishments anyway.
Want a model for what would happen? Look at the Official Information Act. The side out of government tries to trawl through departments and other government bodies looking for information that the party in power wants hidden. The government reacts by delaying replies and refusing to release information (when it admits the information exists at all). The opposition complains to the Ombudsmen, which the government gives ignores and obstructs and generally gives the run around to the point where the OIA complaints backlog extends into the thousands and there’s basically no hope of ever getting any suppression of information over-turned.
That’s how systems get corrupted by the highly politically charged environment – and that’s departments and the Ombudsmen! What’s some tinpot ‘authority’, with no legal authority, going to do? It would be a joke from Day 1.
So, why’s the Law Commission gone down this path? It’s about trying to maintain a media elite in the face of the mass democratising power of the Internet by setting up an expensive gatekeeper that will keep out the rabble and give a quality mark to those inside the tent. The report specifically refers to the ‘brand power’ of being a member of NMSA – so naive, why not just get journos to wear ‘I’m part of the media establishment’ t-shirts? That’ll make people respect ’em.
Like most attempts to swim against the tide of history, NMSA will splutter a bit and then sink beneath the waves. If it ever gets going at all.