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Justice Wide Open: Adam Wagner - A Corrective to Bad Journalism

Justice Wide Open: Adam Wagner - A Corrective to Bad Journalism

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Categories:Types, Research, Law
Published by: j_townend on Jun 19, 2012
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08/28/2013

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Adam Wagner 79
 A CORRECTIVE TO BADJOURNALISM
 Adam Wagner 
answers the Leveson Inquiry’s questions about blogging in journalism and law
1
 
The definition of ‘blogging’ is now extremely wide, so much so that the term ‘blog’has become in essence meaningless. A 
 
 blog can be a
‘ 
 web log’ within the originalmeaning of the word, that is a
‘ 
personal journey’ published on the World Wide Webconsisting of discrete entries (‘posts’)’
2
 
 but it can also be a news and comment website such as the UK Human Rights Blog
3
, a photo-sharing website, a websitepromoting a business. In fact, practically any website can call itself a blog.Mainstream newspapers now produce ‘blogs’ online and as such the boundary  between traditional journalism and blogging has also become unclear. The number of  websites calling themselves blogs is phenomenal. There are now over 70m sitesregistered on WordPress
 
alone, accounting for 800m page views each week. This is asignificant proportion of the total number of internet sites worldwide. Moreover,Twitter allows individual users to publish statements and is in effect a smaller-scale(in respect of length of individual posts) version of blogging within its originalmeaning.Ethics should
 
play a role in blogging, in the same way that ethics should play arole in society generally. It is in society’s interest that people are free to follow theirchosen system of ethics, as long as their system of ethics does not unduly impinge onthe freedom of others. Maintaining this, sometimes uneasy, balance is the basic task of a democratic state. A rough ethical system is emerging in respect of blogging andtweeting. This is not officially enforced by sanctions, but is unofficially enforced by other users. For example, one important principle of blogging is attributing (usually linking to) sources used in a post.
Regulating blogs
Barristers are regulated by the Bar Standards Board and blogging and tweeting arecertainly caught by the Code of Conduct:
4
a barrister was recently fined £2,500 for
1
This article is adapted from Adam Wagner’s written evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, available at <http://adam1cor.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/adam-wagner-leveson-statement-7-2-12-signatureredacted.pdf > accessed May 2012
2
 
‘Blog’ Wikipedia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blog> accessed May 2012
3
Adam Wagner is founding editor and regular contributor to the UK Human Rights Blog, a legalupdate service written by members of 1 Crown Office Row 
 
4
 
 Available at:<http://www.barstandardsboard.org.uk/media/1353125/word_version_of_full_code_of_conduct__ _annexes_jan_2012_.pdf > accessed May 2012
 
80 Justice Wide Openanonymously publishing inappropriate tweets during a trial, conduct which wasfound to be
‘ 
likely to diminish public confidence in the legal profession or theadministration of justice or otherwise bring the legal profession into disrepute
’.
5
 
Iargue that the Bar Code of Conduct and the Legal Services Act 2007
6
also placelawyers under a professional obligation to increase public understanding of law through, for example, activities such as blogging.
7
I do not think blogs can or should be regulated by a domestic system of regulation, for the following reasons:1.
 
It is unworkable. Practically, it would be impossible to regulate all blogging.Hundreds of thousands of blogs are set up
 
each day, let alone posts published,and the term is so elastic that the task would be simply too large andamorphous for any regulator to manage. Even if only popular blogs weretargeted, say those over a certain number of hits, what is to stop an individual blogger simply setting up a new blog in order to avoid regulation?2.
 
The current system already works. Criminal and civil law already provides areasonable level of regulation. Bloggers, whether their websites are read by one or one million people, are subject to financial penalties for libel or quasi-criminal sanctions if they commit a contempt of court. See, for example, thecase of Elizabeth Watson (below), who was sentenced to nine monthsimprisonment (later suspended) for breaching a court order throughinformation published on her personal website. Additionally, Justice Peart hassaid in relation to an Irish case involving the
‘ 
Rate-your-solicitor.com’ websitethat ‘The civil remedies currently available have recently been demonstratedto be an inadequate means of prevention and redress’.
8
 3.
 
Self-regulation already exists. Blogging specifically and social mediapublishing more generally (notably Twitter) is to a large extent self-regulating. As lawyer and journalist David Allen Green put it in a recent blog post:
Regulation is just not about formal ‘black-letter codes’ with sanctions andenforcement agencies. Regulation also means simply that things are done better than they otherwise would be: for example, when one ‘regulates one’sown conduct’. Bloggers and others in social media are willing and able to callout media excesses and bad journalism. The reaction is immediate and can be
5
The barrister was also struck off for separate offences.See <http://www.barstandardsboard.org.uk/complaints-and-professional-conduct/disciplinary-tribunals-and-findings/disciplinary-findings/?DisciplineID=75521> accessed May 2012
6
At: <http://www.barstandardsboard.org.uk/regulatory-requirements/changes-to-regulation/legal-services-act/> accessed May 2012
7
See: Adam Wagner, ‘Must lawyers blog and tweet?’ (UK Human Rights Blog, 24 May 2011)<http://ukhumanrightsblog.com/2011/05/24/must-lawyers-blog-and-tweet/> accessed May 2012
8
Tim Healy, ‘Website accused of defamation is closed by judge’, (Independent.ie, 1 February 2012)<http://www.independent.ie/national-news/courts/website-accused-of-defamation-is-closed-by- judge-3005716.html> accessed May 2012
 
Adam Wagner 81
 brutally frank. They are sometimes wrong, as are formal regulators. But they can take time and allow the media to produce better, more well-informedstories.
9
 
Bloggers and others in social media are particularly willing and able to
‘ 
call out
’ 
eachother’s conduct. The blogosphere and Twitter provide a vibrant, fast-moving andsometimes rather unforgiving arena for debate. As such, an enormous amount of self-regulation and correction already takes place. This is to a large extent the wholepoint of 
social 
media. People enjoy observing a lively debate, and Twitterdemonstrates the extent to which they are also enthusiastic to contribute. Moreover,the more prominent a blogger or blog post, the more it is likely to be the subject of comment and criticism. This is an efficient system as almost by definition the moreinfluential a blog post, the more heavily it is peer-reviewed.4.
 
There is a significant risk of chilling effect. Notwithstanding the extremepractical difficulties with regulating blogs, the risk of doing so would be tolimit the currently vibrant arena for freedom of expression that helps to keep journalists and politicians in check.5.
 
There is already-existing regulation by other means. Some bloggers (such aslawyers and other professionals) are regulated by other means, thus bolsteringthe existing criminal and civil remedies available to victims of ‘bad blogging’.
 
Potentially the most damaging ‘bad blogging’ is a personal attack posted online. As stated above, there is already an array of civil and criminalremedies by which victims of ‘bad blogging’ can seek redress, and a relatively effective means of self-regulation through social media.
 
Practically speaking, Icannot see how victims of ‘bad blogging’ could be given more effective formsof redress except by tweaking the current rules. A formal system of regulationsimply would not work.
Correcting the press
The primary reason for setting up the UKHRB was to act as a corrective to bad journalism about human rights, and in under two years it has become a trustedsource of information for journalists, politicians, those in government and membersof the public. UKHRB operates alongside a number of other excellent legal blogs, run by lawyers, students and enthusiasts for free, which provide a similar service inrespect of other areas of law. I would highlight, for example:
10
 
9
David Allen Green ‘How to think about social media’ (
 New Statesman
, 31 January 2012)<http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/david-allen-green/2012/01/social-media-regulation>accessed May 2012
10
There are now many similar legal blogs – for a full list and hyperlinks see:<http://ukhumanrightsblog.com/2011/04/24/roll-up-roll-up/> accessed May 2012

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