Alan Rusbridger on Open Journalism and the Looming Threat of Supra-Regulation: Saurav Datta
Guest post by SAURAV DATTA
“Open” Journalism – it’s all about transparency, challenging, correction and clarification.
Marking a refreshing departure from the hackneyed “economic model” analysis of digital journalism, Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian’s Editor-in-Chief recently held forth on its effects and manifestations from the perspective of “journalistic practices”. Whether to fortify stories and content behind “gigantic (pay)walls” or not, is the wrong starting point, because one has to see if actions are “journalistically right,” he said.
In the course of an illuminating presentation at the Mumbai Press Club on 19 March, Mr. Rusbridger categorically emphasised that journalists can no longer stake the sole claim to the privilege of being “experts”, because with the advent of technology and the tidal wave of smart-phones and tablets, everyone has got a story to tell, and everything – “a supermarket, an opera house” – is a media company. Everyone has got a perspective, and no one can be the sole voice. To drive this point home, he referred to the “Comment is Free” and “Guardian Environment” sections on The Guardian’s website, where everyone can write and state detailed expositions and not merely snarky remarks, and stated that these two are regarded as voices of authority.
Stating that news reporting has transitioned from the “polemical” of columns and features to the “participation” of ‘crowdsourcing’ news, he cited the example of John Henley, a staff reporter of The Guardian who covered the financial crisis in Greece. Mr. Henley had taken an avant garde route and used Twitter to gather “stories” from non-traditional sources, and this had added an altogether different and “human” dimension to his reportage.
Leveson, Press regulation and Wikileaks
Mr. Rusbridger invoked The Guardian’s origins as a paper to ferment a social revolution, and therefore, inevitably, the issues of the Wikileaks and The Guardian’s endeavours in support of Julian Assange, Bradley Manning’s persecution and the Lord Justice Leveson Enquiry Commission Report and the subsequent developments in England came up.
Clarifying that he stands “shoulder to shoulder” with Assange and Manning in so far as their imperious pursuits for governmental accountability and exposure of the real truth were concerned, Mr. Rusbridger stated that the boundaries of journalistic and testimonial privilege in the eyes of the law needed to be widened. The work being done by bloggers (of course not everyone writing for self-gratification, but only a specific category and ‘community’ of people) and whistle-blowers were no less than journalistic practice, and if not granted protection under the law, would only result in a pernicious effect on the disclosure of the truth as it ought to be.
Speaking about the British Parliament’s agreement to junk the existing Press Complaints Commission and go for an independent regulator governed by “Royal Charter”, Mr. Rusbridger explained how such an arrangement would only traduce the freedom which has been enjoyed by the Press, and which has become all the more threatened and necessary in the aftermath of 9/11 and the sordid saga of depredations on civil liberties and human rights it has brought in its wake.
A Royal Charter is not a piece of binding legislation, but a kind of ‘discretion’ wherein those who do not agree to abide by the jurisdiction of the new regulator, would be susceptible to “exemplary costs” in cases of libel and breach of privacy. “Cautiously welcoming” the need of an effective regulator because the much-vaunted system of self-regulation has been an abject failure if one goes by the egregious violations committed with near-perfect immunity by News International (the infamous phone-hacking scandal would have never come to light were it not for fearless investigative journalism), Mr. Rusbridger nevertheless voiced his grave reservations against the new system.
Comparing the proposed government- established regulatory body to some kind of “Freemason Society” shrouded in opaqueness and born out of a tacit arrangement between all political parties, he pointed out how portentous it would be. The threat of exemplary damages would hover over the media and seekers of truth (investigative journalists, bloggers and whistle-blowers included) like the proverbial sword of Damocles. It would be a kind of supra-regulator, a ‘Panopticon’, and would only strengthen the hands of the State and its powerful acolytes in imposing the haunted spectre of the “chilling effect” which had not been felt since 1695. The only difference is that this time round, it would have a perceived benign face.
(Saurav Datta is a legal researcher lecturer in Jurisprudence and Media Law and Policy. He lives in Mumbai.)