Should we regulate the hyperlocal space? And what are the legal issues?

This weekend I’m very much looking forward to a day in Birmingham at the Talk About Local / N0tice 2012 “unconference”.

My current research project focuses on national newspapers and media law/regulation and I’m keen to extend my view to digital and local news providers.

I’m hoping other TAL12 attendees will be interested in talking about media law and regulation and two key questions:

  • Should we regulate the hyperlocal space? If so, how?
  • Hyperlocal publishers are already subject to the law of the (global and national) land. How can they best be supported?

It’s something I initially looked at in 2010, the results of which can be found here.
Damian Radcliffe (@mrdamian76) – who until recently worked at Ofcom but is now based in Doha – has addressed the issue of hyperlocal regulation in a post for the Democratic Society blog.

In his view, “where possible, regulation of online hyperlocal media should be avoided”. He struggled to come up with reasons in favour of regulation and instead sets out five arguments for leaving well alone, which deal with: the open internet philosophy; the inapplicability of historic rules of regulation; practicalities; Citizen Smith; innovation. Read them in full here.

Damian’s argument against regulation is persuasive in terms of enforced regulation, but I would welcome more discussion around small-scale (informal?) self-regulation and the benefits that might bring. With the caveat that these are rough, working thoughts up for discussion, here are a couple of comments:

Protection for hyperlocals. He mentions the broadcasting type “two-way contract”. This explains the logic of broadcasting regulation: that broadcasters give something (eg. standards/public service content) in return for spectrum and broadcasting rights. While I accept that such a deal isn’t really applicable to online publishers (we have no need to negotiate hosting space which can be bought outside the UK), but could we think about some other kind of two-way contract? ie. hyperlocals could have recourse to some sort of support or resources (ie. a dispute resolution service, similar to the PCC’s complaints mediation arm) if they abide by certain standards and ‘public interest’ goals? This would not necessarily have to be a mandatory – and certainly not statutory – obligation but could be developed by an independent, non-profit organisation, for example. (Of course, the big question is how it would be funded). I’m not convinced by media ‘accreditation’ schemes as incentives, however.

Codes of conduct. Journal Local founder Philip John raises this issue in the comments underneath Damian’s piece and suggests that publishers could “choose to adopt [a code] specifically for adding credibility”. It’s also something the Media Standards Trust has explored with its Transparency initiative and the Value Added News / hNews  mechanism. They have developed a system of rel-principles, which MST’s Martin Moore describes as “a line of code that embeds a link within each article to the news principles to which it adheres” (these are particular to the news organisation). In response to Philip’s comment, Damian said he supports the idea of self-imposed codes, but he is dubious of the benefit for”external stakeholders”. This is a question worth exploring further. Sure, we don’t want hyperlocals to get bogged down in bureaucracy but perhaps some of form of code that would help strengthen a site’s journalism and communication with users would be a commendable exercise – especially if, as I suggest above, it could give them access to a pool of resources.

Damian previously asked me about my thoughts on hyperlocal media law for his recent report for NESTA on ‘Here and Now – UK hyperlocal media today’ [PDF]. This is from the section on ‘understanding the law’, including my quote in the middle:

“Whatever your platform, another core skill – and one which may not necessarily be obvious – is an understanding of media law. Hyperlocal sites blur the boundaries between journalism and activism, and this can be particularly difficult in terms of media law. For sites written by concerned individuals and community activists, there is a risk of undertaking news reporting which readers – and in particular, public bodies – may take issue with.

‘Big professional news organisations can afford in-house legal advice, which simply isn’t feasible for smaller operations, such as independent local news sites. In 2010 I conducted a small online survey among 71 bloggers and small online publishers, many of whom were in the ‘hyperlocal’ space. The results indicated mixed feelings about resources, with 27 per cent respondents encountering legal trouble in last two years. Of these, 19 online writers who were contacted over a legal matter in the last two years, only seven sought legal advice, which was paid for in four instances. The remaining 12 dealt with it alone…. … without legal help available, bloggers may be less inclined to pursue certain kinds of stories or avenues of investigation.’ Judith Townend, Founder, Meeja Law

“As we can see, the level of legal support for the citizen journalist/reporter is often minimal, if indeed there is any at all. In the US, J-Lab and the Knight Foundation ran a Legal Risk Blog for American citizen journalists, bloggers and social network users, but its usefulness as a tool for UK practitioners is limited. As the sector grows it may be only matter of time before we see the emergence of similar services in the UK.” (Radcliffe 2012. p.23)

I think it would be brilliant to see the “emergence of similar services in the UK”, in the mould of something like the Berkman Center’s Digital Media Law Project in the US. Which leads us to the question of who/how/what …

As I say, these are rough thoughts-in-progress and I hope other people will be interested in joining this discussion on Saturday. I’d love to hear what people actually doing hyperlocal news think.

This entry was posted in blogging, courts, data, digital open justice, hyperlocal publishing, journalism, media ethics, media law and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Should we regulate the hyperlocal space? And what are the legal issues?

  1. Philip John says:

    In my head the protection and code of conduct go hand-in-hand. I’m imagining an all too common situation where a hyperlocal is barred from reporting a public meeting of some sort. They would be able to back themselves up with a declaration that they are signed up to X, which means they abide by a code of conduct and have some legal backing should they be challenged (as with VentnorBlog and the coroners court).

    As for the who/how/what, one of the core reasons for (finally biting the bullet and) starting the Hyperlocal Alliance was to galvanise hyperlocals to take these ideas and explore the feasibility, maybe even put them into practice where possible.

  2. jtownend says:

    I agree and look forward to seeing your alliance develop. I wouldn’t want to see a scheme where you could *only* access court (for example) if you had certain accreditation as it might end up keeping more out than it lets in … But as an added extra, and for those occasions when journalistic credentials are demanded, such a ‘declaration’ could be useful.

  3. Mike Rawlins says:

    I’m still out on forming trade associations, alliances, unions etc. I have seen a couple of different groups of people trying to form associations recently but I think going down this formal route will possibly give the mainstream media another stick to beat hyperlocals with, IE ‘you did this and yet in your T&C of [whatever you are a member of] it says X,Y & Z’.

    I also fear this is only interesting and on the table because people want to create something that they are in control of, giving them a perceived elevation above other hyperlocals. Can you imagine the uproar if, after the Leveson inquiry is concluded, we are all told that we have to become members of the new media regulatory body and abide by its terms?

    On mainstream media and press cards, these don’t give you any greater access to a place or situation in law as far as I am aware. Anyone remember ITV not being given access to a police press conference in the Jo Yates investigation, because they broadcast a report by Geraint Vincent that was very dismissive of the police and how they were handing the investigation? Press Cards and being a major terrestrial broadcaster didn’t do any good there. Everyone from the police down to the local WI has the right to say to the press, be they be from the loftiest towers of the fourth estate in London down to a small blog in Little Midfordshire, ‘I’m sorry but you can’t come in here and report on this’, that is how it works.

    Having a press card may get you to the next line of a cordon at an incident, it may get you access to the press room at an event. If you get stopped by the Police it identifies you as a member of the press / NUJ and shows them that if they arrest you or obstruct you from going about your lawful business, you have the legal backing to support you.

    So being a member of an association or having signed a contract isn’t going to cut it in these situations.

    However, a form of words or an agreement written up by one of our friendly legal people with input from hyperlocal sites and other relevant people, that people could voluntarily sign up to, free & gratis is probably a better way forward IMHO. This would be like a Creative Commons licence, you agree to abide by the words and you can put a badge on your site to say you are working to these.

    The words could be reviewed and adapted as required maybe once a year.

    • Philip John says:

      You’re right Mike, nothing put in place could be overly formal – there’s no way that would work, it has to be informal and voluntary. I don’t agree that it’d provide a stick though – a code of conduct, for example, would merely codify the principles that most hyperlocal sites already stand by. If they were to ‘violate’ it they’d be going against the principles they’ve so far stuck to, which I can’t see happening. I’m sure you wouldn’t violate the principles with which you operate Pits n Pots in the same way.

      “people want to create something that they are in control of, giving them a perceived elevation above other hyperlocals”
      I struggle to see how that would even be possible. You’re talking about hundreds of people all working independently who hardly have the time to think outside their own operation. Only government-imposed regulation could ‘control’ those sites in any way. Anything else would only work if voluntary.

      Agreed on press cards, too – someone mentioned the idea to me yonks ago so I explored it a little but realised quickly that there was no mileage in it.

      Yes, I love the idea of something Creative Commons like. The problem is we’ve been talking about this for years and nothing has happened. Hyperlocals need to work together to do this stuff and the Hyperlocal Alliance is there to get it done.

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