With his Melbourne speech, Lord Justice Leveson shows himself shaky on the internet

Lord Justice Leveson’s speech at the University of Melbourne this morning, entitled ‘Hold the Front Page: News Gathering in a Time of Change’, did little to dispel the feeling that he lacks understanding of the subtleties of the internet. In particular, he did not address the key point that the damage caused to individuals by careless online writers does not just consist in illegal acts, but unethical ones too.

At a panel discussion hosted by Finer Stephens Innocent following on from Leveson’s address, Independent editor Chris Blackhurst was asked what his initial reaction to the speech was. He looked incredulous before flippantly remarking, ‘I’d like to tell Melbourne University I’m available to speak for half the price.’

Blackhurst’s joke highlights a serious point about Leveson’s speech. In his rather convoluted address, punctuated by stuttering and pauses where he seemed to forget what he was talking about, Leveson spent an inordinate amount of time explaining that there is something called the internet around these days.

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He went on to enlighten the packed auditorium with the information that on the internet there are websites of newspapers and magazines, and forums that allow bloggers and amateur reporters to share their views with the world. The latter, he observed, tend to be more trigger-happy in their writing.

The danger, Leveson concluded, was that if the activities of bloggers and Tweeters – who can destroy reputations with idle gossip – are not adequately legislated for, the standards of professional journalism might slip too. The challenge, therefore, is to ‘ensure that the criminal and civil law remain effective’ for both online and print journalism.

This is a vague and incomplete statement. The main challenge posed for reporters by the internet, as Blackhurst was quick to point out, is the conflict between the demand for speed and the importance of accuracy – a subtle point of ethics and integrity that Leveson didn’t mention. Blackhurst gave a timely example, relaying the events in the Independent’s newsroom last Friday, when it was first rumoured that Kate Middleton’s nurse had committed suicide.

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The print side of the newspaper immediately went into action, he said, making calls and investigations to see if there was any truth to the rumour. On the digital side of the paper, however, his journalists were rather less scrupulous: one posted a comment on the newspaper’s website claiming that Middleton’s nurse had committed suicide.

The comment was immediately taken down, Blackhurst said, after which he spent his Friday afternoon embroiled in a ‘rather bizarre, philosophical discussion’ with a section editor about what had happened. Online journalism, his colleague said, was all about speed – and with speed, accuracy can suffer. Blackhurst paraphrased him as saying ‘You’ve got to be the first to get the story out.’

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It was therefore heartening to hear Blackhurst defending his paper’s integrity. ‘We cannot sacrifice accuracy,’ he said, ‘even if we’re tenth to get the story out.’

One member of the audience memorably called the clash between accuracy and speed as the ‘Dutch elm disease of journalistic ethics’. From his speech this morning, it’s clear that, like Dutch elm disease, Lord Justice Leveson is still mainly interested in dead trees.

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