ImageThe UK government has come up with plans in response to the Leveson Inquiry that have serious implications for all bloggers, particularly those without any training in the laws of libel.

The plans unveiled by Culture Secretary Maria Miller involve establishing a Royal Charter to approve a new watchdog system – the newspaper and magazine industry will set up a regulator to give victims of press intrusion a quick and inexpensive way of getting compensation.

Publishers who sign up face fines of up to £1 million ($quitealot) if they breach the rules. However, the papers also add that ‘under Tory proposals those who fail to sign up – including bloggers and those who publish news online – could face far larger exemplary damages’. 

It is not at all clear how bloggers would be expected to ‘sign up’ to this scheme, or indeed what sort of blogger would fall under the scheme’s remit. The article gives no indication of whether ‘amateur’ blogging by non-professionals (i.e., not journalists) would be covered, or indeed whether blogs by journalists that do not cover their specialist subject (such as my musings on life, the universe and everything) would fall under the scope of the regulator. 

Since the ‘exemplary’ damages are ‘far in excess’ of £1 million, this is something that needs to be clarified urgently. Blogs are frequently speculative, sometimes scandalous – it is in the nature of the beast to be freer and less demanding of proof than newspaper or magazine journalism. On the internet, one can find names that cannot be published in ‘proper’ periodicals – footballers and actors that have taken out superinjunctions, for instance, to prevent the public knowing about (sometimes literally) their affairs.

There are several reasons why the press holds back in such cases – one may be that the allegations are not sufficiently proved, leaving the paper open to being sued for libel. In the case of breaching a superinjunction, there is also the danger of being found to be in contempt of court.

Amateur bloggers have by and large happily fallen outside the dramas that have befallen their big brothers in the mainstream press. What this new move suggests is that in future they may not. People should already know that online, spur-of-the-moment writing can cause the writer problems – there have been a handful of court cases already about ill-thought tweets and Facebook comments. I remember one man being taken to court for a comment threatening to blow up an airport, for instance, and another for writing in his Facebook status that people should converge in a particular town and start a riot.

The writers of these comments were almost certainly being facetious, but it is well worth remembering that when you write on your blog, or Facebook page – or when you tweet – your words are effectively there to be seen by the entire online world. If you say something about a person or an organisation that you cannot prove is true – and they have the money to go to court to prove that what you say is untrue – then it is already the case that you could be sued for a large sum of money.

The new regulations look, on the face of it, to extend this beyond libel into ‘intrusion’ which could be taken as comment on the private (rather than public) life of any public figure. Presumably comment on their public life will still be permissible! And the damages payments could be cripplingly high, unless there is some simple way in which any person with a blog can sign up to the ‘good behaviour’ requirements.

Are most bloggers insured for libel damages? I doubt it. Will bloggers feel motivated to get more comprehensive insurance to cover the new potential fines? That would seem like an even more remote possibility. 

What is certain is that bloggers should be aware that the net is tightening around all public utterances, not just those made by the Press (however you may define that body). Bloggers may even find they have to police comments on their blogs, in case those turn out to be libellous, or intrusive. For popular bloggers, that could be a time-consuming and perplexing task. Is this the end of freedom of speech on the web? It is hard to say how this will work out in the end – exactly how draconian the system will be. But it looks very much like the era of carefree comment is coming to an abrupt end.