Media regulation: leave hyperlocal out of this

Citizen Smith
Not happy about this letter from OFCOM. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Damian Radcliffe is the author of “Here and Now – UK hyperlocal media today”. In this post he argues that at a time when media and digital regulation is under review, hyperlocal media should be left alone. This is a contribution to our media regulation discussion event on Wednesday afternoon.

The recent announcement of £1m in funding for new hyperlocal ventures is a welcome shot in the arm for this nascent media industry. The UK is full of great examples of hyperlocal activity. However issues of trust, scalability and sustainability are all key challenges for large parts of the sector as it moves forward.

The NESTA and TSB funding may offer some solutions to these challenges, but as the sector grows, so issues of regulation may start to loom slightly larger on the policy agenda. In my view, where possible, regulation of online hyperlocal media should be avoided. That might seem a strange thing for a former regulator to say, so let offer five reasons why the sector should be unregulated, and why I think attempts at regulation would ultimately prove unsuccessful.

1. Online Philosophy

My starting point is a simple one. If you are a believer in the open internet, then the web should be a predominantly unregulated space. Clearly there are exceptions, such as the need to protect the exploitation of minors, but most of these concerns are not applicable to hyperlocal websites. Provided that the law of the land is not being broken, then websites should generally be left alone.

2. The historic rules of regulation do not apply

In a broadcast world, regulation was used to create a framework for licensees. In return for abiding by the rules, which included signing up to a code of conduct and agreeing terms of trade (e.g. what type of service you are, or specific obligations such as the amount of local news you produce), then license holders got access to a precious commodity: spectrum, and with it the right to broadcast direct to people in their homes. This two way contract has been a key tool in making broadcast regulation work, but it is not a framework which logically transfers to the online space.

3. Practicalities

Anyone can set up a hyperlocal website or channel using tools like Facebook, WordPress or Twitter. These tools are often free, and fairly easy to use, with the result that you can set up your website in minutes. And it also means that if your website gets into trouble, you can dismantle and remove traces of it pretty quickly too. The net result of this is that not only is it impossible to comprehensively capture what hyperlocal sites exist, it will be equally impossible to monitor them effectively.

In contrast, launching a newspaper, TV or Radio Station which has often required specific licenses, equipment and training, as well as clear monitoring requirements. Broadcasters, for example, have a legal requirement to keep a record of what they have transmitted, whilst newspaper owners see their physical product in the public’s hands, making it rather hard to hide any potential crimes and misdemeanors.

4. Citizen Smith

Whilst commercial hyperlocal outlets and networks do exist, the majority of hyperlocal content in the UK is produced by citizens, often for free, or certainly very small sums of money. This in itself is no bad thing, indeed I have previously suggested that the best sites stem from local need, by people steeped in their communities. In many cases, but not always, this means active citizens investigating and reporting on what matters to them.

Most citizen practitioners would be unable to afford any inevitable regulatory fees, and the very presence of such fees would deter some citizens setting up their own sites. More likely most concerned citizens would not even know that their Facebook Group, or a Blogger site fell under a regulatory regime, until the point when they fell foul of the law and received a demand letter from the regulator.  This is probably a situation best avoided – certainly Mrs Miggins being told she has to take down her site reviewing local pies, or else face a $1,000 fine – will simply be spun by the press as the Nanny State gone mad. I do not think anyone wants to see that happen.

5.            Innovation

Lastly, there is the issue of innovation. Regulators the world over like to talk a lot about their role in encouraging innovation, creativity and new business models. Perhaps the extent of this is overplayed, but regulators can certainly play a role in ensuring that barriers to innovation are kept to a minimum. With the online hyperlocal sector still in its infancy there is a very real risk that innovation would be stymied by unnecessary regulation.

In looking at these five reasons, you could argue that each point may be sufficient to argue against regulation. Certainly when collectively put together they suggest that regulation of hyperlocal media is as impractical as it is unwelcome.

In the interests of balance, I also tried to identify five reasons *for* regulation, and I confess that I struggled.

I considered the option of income thresholds – that sites above a certain income would need to be regulated – whether sites might opt in to be regulated by the PCC or some other body, or indeed if the industry should come together and devise its own system of self-regulation.

But the only benefits that I could see from such approaches were that becoming regulated might boost the credibility of the sector in some circles, and that it might also make it easier to unlock union and legal support. These are important considerations, but ultimately I am not sure that regulation is the way to achieve these outcomes. Rather, they require changes in mindset from big media, the NUJ and in some cases consumers.

In my experience most hyperlocal outlets take questions of balance and accuracy very seriously and where they do have an editorial agenda it is usually pretty clear. I am therefore not quite sure what regulation would achieve, so suggest that for now, we should leave the “responsible punks” of the quasi-underground hyperlocal movement to manage themselves.

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Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.

11 replies on “Media regulation: leave hyperlocal out of this”

  1. LJ Leveson needs to guard against the newspapers dragging their nascent competitors into their new regulatory regime and conveniently smothering them to death with regulation.

    Leveson/post Leveson has a challenge to construct a regulatory regime in the remarkable new media age. Where for instance do Guido Fawkes or Left Foot Forward fit in?

    But small community-run hyperlocals need to be carved out of this or there is a risk of smothering innovation and plurality. Damian’s points here are well made. Everyone’s up for fair competition and plurality of voice. It’s a pleasure that the more enlightened local ‘papers’ and ‘broadcasters’ now work with hyperlocals in symbiotic relationships.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-16874726 and
    http://www.birminghammail.net/your-communities/birmingham/digbeth/

    But sadly some traditional media outlets and some local politicians would still love to shut out any competition and voices they can’t influence by traditional arts.

    Any post-Leveson proposals that catch hyperlocals will also sweep up a range of other web site types so they are unlikely to proceed un-noticed.

  2. Some hyperlocalers (myself included) have talked about the idea of having a “code of conduct” that we could choose to adopt specifically for adding credibility. Those sites with “blog” in their name would particularly benefit!

    You mentioned that and I wonder how feasible you think that is?

    One of the reasons for the Hyperlocal Alliance is to provide a space for site owners to explore ideas like self-regulation.

  3. Will – many thanks for your comments and further insight – as you know I think there is great potential for partnerships in this space, but I do wonder if different regulatory regimes may be used as a reason to hide behind in terms of *not* working in partnership, especially further down the line.

    Phil – I can see the merit of such a code, but on reflection, I am not sure it will add much value for external stakeholders if that is the primary goal. Consumers will not understand, or know what it means, look at the Ofcom media literacy research to see how confused they already get about regulation, funding and sources of recourse. Old media are likely to scoff at anything the sector has created themselves.

    That said, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it! (I know that may sound contradictory.) You could create a series of principles – Charles Kane like – for hyperlocals to act around, with agreed and shared text on issues such as fairness, complaint handling etc. It should be short. And it may be something that sites, especially those with a news slant, should have anyway.

    It could be especially useful for new sites in giving them best practise and a set standards to aspire to. As an example, I know that the guys at Mon-TV (http://montv.yourlocal.tv/) have previously worked to ensure that their content is in line with the Ofcom Broadcasting Code, even though they are not bound by it. The benefits of this approach are, in my view, of more benefit for practitioners, than partners and audiences, but that doesn’t mean it is not worth doing.

  4. Really interesting post, Damian. My comment is a bit lengthy, so I’ve posted on my blog, linking here: http://meejalaw.com/2012/04/24/should-we-regulate-the-hyperlocal-space-and-what-are-the-legal-issues/

    In essence, I agree that enforced/statutory regulation is something we should steer clear of in this space, but I think there’s potential to explore the (possibly informal) self-regulation idea a bit more – especially in regards to building up legal support resources for hyperlocal bloggers. But my thoughts are very sketchy ..

    I hope that Saturday’s TalkAboutLocal conference will provide an opportunity to learn about hyperlocal publishers’ actual experiences and their regulatory/legal concerns. And perhaps raise an issue that Will Perrin and I have been discussing – access to courts data.

    1. No problem, Judith. Susie is writing up her very detailed notes so we should have it up on the blog in the next few days.

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