net.wars: The fifth estate

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 07 December 2012

Lord Justice Leveson, who has been largely silent since introducing his 2,000-page report on press standards and ethics a little over a week ago, commented at an event in Australia yesterday that we would be needing laws to maintain privacy and freedom of expression on the Internet and that it would "take time to civilize the Internet".

Wendy M Grossman

Excuse me? I've been on the Internet for more than 20 years, and I think I'm pretty civilized.

Those of us who wish to protect the Internet as a still-fledgling medium get nervous whenever anyone starts talking about laws governing it. Leveson's comments, as far as they've been reported, are not particularly extreme; perhaps more so is the single page of his report on the press, in which he calls the Internet an ethical vacuum (PDF, p 736) (or see, more accessibly, the Guardian).

Even with Internet blinkers on I can see that to someone who has little contact with the Internet outside of mainstream press reporting the online world must seem like a vast wasteland of idle, undifferentiated self-importance punctuated by illegal acts. What does the general press cover? Hacking, crime, "piracy" (that is, file-sharing, without the nuance of whether the material being shared is legal or not), vigilanteism, the amount of strange and stupid stuff people post about themselves on social networks, and flash mobs. Small wonder that Leveson, so recently steeped in the workings of the nation's newsrooms, worries about "mob rule" and "trial by Twitter".

I had actually been well on the way to not caring much about the conclusions of the Leveson Report until or unless the regime proposed in its wake turns out to have nasty ramifications. The journalism of power it describes - intimately intertwined with politicians' agendas and police corruption - could not be further removed from any work I've ever done. What the inquiry did in exposing the level of illegal activity in the UK media was highly important, and exposing people who hacked into others' phones and hired rogue investigators is entirely appropriate. The thousands of pages documenting all this remain as a necessary and vital historical document. But what's the result? More self-regulation, hopefully better enough to avoid all this happening again in another ten years: as Leveson himself said in introducing the report, this is the seventh such inquiry in less than 70 years. Ten years from now, what will the press look like? Are the conditions that prevailed 30 years ago and set the ground for the shameful culture that's grown up since replicable?

It is clearly nonsense to speak of "the Internet" as though it were a single medium operating in a consistent way; "the Internet" is billions of people grouping and ungrouping in astronomical numbers of ways. The community standards and norms of Facebook are entirely different from those of 4chan or Anonymous, and none of those has a clear offline counterpart; CNN operates little differently online than it does offline; bloggers may be anything from a clearly identifiable person from a recognized institution or a troll with a camera phone. It's certainly understandable that the commercial press resents being held to a different standard: how come France gets to publish its nude photos of English royalty and Britain doesn't? 'Snot fair. Everyone in England can access them, and we can't still publish?

Leveson argues that there is "a qualitative difference between photographs being available online and being displayed, or blazoned, on the front page of a newspaper such as The Sun". The imprimatur of the newspaper, he argues, gives the photographs greater importance and weight. But - as he does not say but a newspaper proprietor might - the Internet gives the photographs greater longevity and wider, much faster distribution.

Ultimately, what is going to happen with the Internet is what has happened with the press: we are going to learn to live with a medium that is only imperfectly regulated. The toxic culture that Leveson studied was made up of professional people paid to work for commercial organizations during a time when most of their income was earned offline. People who hack into other people's phones and publish the results are breaking the law and deserve to be punished (unless there's a really good public interest defense); it doesn't matter whether the publication is online or offline, professional or amateur. And yet his recommendations ultimately merely seek to create sterner replicas of the structure that's already in place: no one will accept trading away the traditional freedoms of the press in the interests of forcing them to behave better. We take on the risk that the press will overstep because we believe that their role as the fourth estate - "speaking truth to power" - is a vital one in a democracy.

I would say that if anything keeps the press in line it will be the Internet. Who investigates press stories when they've gotten it wrong, shames the perpetrators, and publishes the results? People on the Internet. Where can factual errors be most quickly corrected? The Internet. Who speaks truth to the fourth estate? The Internet. That's not all it does, of course, and it's not all good. But we will have to accept the same trade-offs for the fifth estate that we have in other media.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) (but please turn off HTML).