Tuesday, December 4, 2012

First They Came For The Press...

First they came for the press and I didn't speak out because I read all my news on the Internet. Then they came for the Internet... The call for press regulation will inevitably lead to internet regulation.

When trawling through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I found it interesting how many people comment in support of state backed regulation of the press but against any kind of state mandated monitoring, let alone regulation, of the Internet.

Tom Watson and Stephen Fry are two big names who hold these views. They would argue that the press is dominated by over-mighty "barons" who have a disproportionate influence on content, while the Internet is a freely associating mass of individuals. They may have a point.

Perhaps its the freedom of the Internet and the social media it supports that has led to its exponential growth in popularity in recent years. Meanwhile, the dead tree press has declined, slowly at first but then more rapidly. The increasingly desperate search for readers led to the section of the press that wanted to continue to be described as "popular" to reach out to an ever descending common denominator; an audience that demanded salacious gossip, exposés of celebs as well as the high and mighty. Like a drug, the more they supplied the more their audience wanted. Eventually, the only way to supply this kind of content in ever vaster quantities was to use underhand, even criminal tactics. Not, always, to unearth wrong doing in the public interest, but to satisfy the salacious interests of a hooked public.

The press has been around for hundreds of years. Eventually, the print press technology became accessible to the masses and a myriad of pamphlets and papers spewed forth into the world. Ideas spread and progress was made. Eventually, individuals honed the art of journalism and sold more papers than other publishers. They grew to became influential and powerful within their industry and, as Leveson has illustrated, in pubic life too. Then, once an alternative medium came into the picture providing free content and access to information at a click of a button, the decline set in.

The Internet, however, is relatively new. Like a new Universe, not long after the big bang, billions of particles are flying around unchecked and unrestricted by systems or even gravity. 500 million Twitter users are generating billions of tweets. Nothing seems to control or influence them. Or does it?

The formation of the Universe eventually saw free particles start to coalesce and form stars that then attracted satellites to form systems that led to general order. We're already seeing something similar occurring on Twitter. And perhaps this goes some way to explaining the position of Messrs Watson and Fry. Because they are stars in the Twitterverse. Stephen Fry, for example, has amassed 5.1 million followers. He is highly influential. A Twitter baron, you might say. One tweet from him reaches far more people than an MP's speech in the House of Commons and more than an article written in most national newspapers. You see, they're happy to see the press regulated by politicians but not so keen on anything similar for themselves.

Perhaps they understand such regulation will only hasten the death of the dead tree press. Their hatred for sections of the press that have not been supportive of their brand of politics leads them to yearn for a day when we are rid of the likes of Rupert Murdoch and his Times, Sun and News of the World (well, one down...). This is humorously illustrated in Fry and Laurie's sketch back in mid-90s when The Sun was still heavily associated with support for Margaret Thatcher and the Tories (and before it started its 13 years of support for Labour during which time we heard NOTHING about the evils Murdoch from the left). But they are short sighted.

Once the traditional press is regulated and subservient to politicians, it'll be only a matter of time before it dies completely. Either through circulation collapse or suicide as publishers move on. But, it will only be the medium the dies. The content would have long since migrated onto the Internet. Once a successful business model is developed for Internet based publishing there's no stopping a wholesale move. The best writers, investigative journalists, commentators will coalesce around the web publications with the widest audiences.

A similar order that developed for the press will come to the Internet. And then, once they've lost their "most influential" statuses, you can rest assured the likes of Fry and Watson will be calling for it to be controlled and tamed.

If you want to see the press regulated more strictly than now, independently of the press barons and their editors, with improved and speedy redress for those wronged, but without recourse to statutory controls that would endanger press freedom, sign this petition:

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/42582 (Unlike the Hacked-off petition pushing for statutory regulation, you can only sign this once!)

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