This is a cross-post of an article published earlier today on the website of The Democratic Society as part of a series on media regulation and new democracy. It is designed to prove thought and discussion ahead of a roundtable at the RSA in London. Find out more about the event here.
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 GDP 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.
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.
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.
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.