As the bell tolls for press freedom, the realisation that a whole host of tiny websites, including Big Brother Watch, would be covered by the provisions of the new press regulator is dawning on Westminster.
On Monday, the Lords will vote on the legislation “underpinning” the Royal Charter on press-self regulation. They will determine who is to be a ‘relevant publisher’ and at present risks catching broadly any site that is has more than one author, carries news or information about current affairs, or gossip about celebrities, and has some kind of editorial control.
We are urgently trying to garner support for an amendment to exclude small organisations from the provisions of what is already becoming an unwieldy and unpredictable piece of legislative horse trading. We have until 3pm today for it to be tabled in the Lords.
Blogs were never meant to be included in the scope of the proposals and it is only by loose drafting that they have been caught up.
The Government should take the initiative rather than waiting for a Lords amendment and ensure that small organisations, local micro-newspapers and embryonic blogger sites are not cast into the same chaos as the large newspapers will imminently face. Those of us who cannot afford lawyers may decide we cannot afford to take our chances.
This is not an ideal situation – as with most things formulated in meetings at 2am – and it would make much more sense for this to be handled rationally and thought through properly. Our amendment, introducing an exemption for organisations who are deemed to be small by the test under the Companies Act.
Particularly when the issue of exemplary damages, levied solely because someone did not join a regulator, is taking into account, it is impossible to deny a chilling effect. Like many others, I believe this is a step too far. The fear of ending up on the wrong side of an exemplary award for a small website, especially one focusing on a controversial issue or local authority, may well prove to be too great and they will simply not take the risk. The only people who benefit are those seeking to avoid scrutiny. Our democracy will be poorer.
> See here for details of the amendment.