Press regulation, the blogosphere and possible implications for churches (and us)

The following would appear to have only a fairly marginal relevance to “law & religion” were it not for the fact that there are a lot of religious blogs about. Many of them emanate from church congregations: my own Quaker Meeting is on the point of starting one.

The Crime and Courts Bill (which started in the Lords) is taking forward the recently-agreed press regulation proposals on exemplary damages. An amendment (131) made by the Commons inserted a new Schedule into the Bill to provide a series of exclusions. It has now been agreed to by the Lords, but with a further amendment – paragraph 7A in the following [our bold]:

EXCLUSIONS FROM DEFINITION OF “RELEVANT PUBLISHER”

Broadcasters

1 The British Broadcasting Corporation.

2 Sianel Pedwar Cymru.

3 The holder of a licence under the Broadcasting Act 1990 or 1996 who publishes news-related material in connection with the broadcasting activities authorised under the licence.

Special interest titles

4 A person who publishes a title that-

(a) relates to a particular pastime, hobby, trade, business, industry or profession, and

(b) only contains news-related material on an incidental basis that is relevant to the main content of the title.

Scientific or academic journals

5 A person who publishes a scientific or academic journal that only contains news-related material on an incidental basis that is relevant to the scientific or academic content.

Public bodies and charities

6 (1) A public body or charity that publishes news-related material in connection with the carrying out of its functions.

(2) “Public body” means a person or body whose functions are of a public nature.

Company news publications etc

7 A person who publishes a newsletter, circular or other document which-

(a) relates to a business carried on by the person, and

(b) only contains news-related material on an incidental basis that is relevant to the person’s business.

Small-scale blogs

7A A person who publishes a small-scale blog.

Book publishers

8 (1) A person who is the publisher of a book.

(2) “Book” does not include any title published on a periodic basis with substantially different content.”

Paragraph 6(2) defines “public body” but not “charity” – presumably on the basis that there is no simple definition, given the continuation of excepted status in England and Wales and the fact that registration has not started in Northern Ireland. Evidently the Government prefers to leave the matter to the courts.

Paragraph 7A was inserted without division and the insertion was a Government amendment to its own Schedule. However, it still remains to be seen what will happen to it when the amendment is considered by the Commons, given that the whole issue of press regulation has split the Coalition. What if Labour and the Lib Dems decide to oppose it?

Comment

Quite apart from whether or not it survives the Commons (for which, watch this space) the drafting of inserted paragraph 7A – though presumably done by the Parliamentary Counsel Office – looks extremely suspect. Exactly what is “a small-scale blog”? One that has no more than fifty entries? One that only gets a hundred hits a week?  I cannot imagine that the PCO drafted it like that except on a direct ministerial instruction that it was to be intentionally vague.

Nevertheless, in principle charity blogs – which should cover the vast majority of blogs emanating from church congregations – should not be covered by the new regulatory system, either because they are produced by charities or (possibly) because they may be regarded as “small-scale”. To be on the safe side, however, I would suggest that any congregation that operates a blog should make a formal minuted decision to that effect, so that the person actually in day-to-day editorial control is seen to be acting on behalf of the charity and not merely operating as a freelance.

More generally, of course, all this has considerable relevance to the activities of this blog. Unsurprisingly, the proposals for regulation have caused considerable anxiety in the blogosphere – see, for example, this from the Open Rights Group  and ObiterJ’s very useful summary of the current state of play – and it’s an anxiety I share. Are we a “small-scale blog”? The answer is, we just don’t know – and while we try very hard indeed to avoid “abusive or defamatory comments against identifiable person(s), the authors of the site or other commentators”, we nevertheless have concerns on the application of the proposed legislation.

Frank Cranmer

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