PR Industry: Social Media Is ‘Glaring Omission’ In Leveson Report
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PR Industry: Social Media Is ‘Glaring Omission’ In Leveson Report

A new report that calls for radical reform of UK media regulation has been criticised by the PR industry for overlooking the impact of social media.

Arun Sudhaman

LONDON--A new report that calls for radical reform of UK media regulation has been criticised by the PR industry for overlooking the impact of social media.

This week’s Leveson Report, which followed a lengthy inquiry into media phone-hacking and ethics, recommends a new independent press watchdog that is backed by legislation.

However, PRCA chief executive Francis Ingham noted that the Report made little mention of the critical role played by the internet in shaping and disseminating news.

“The glaring omission here is social media,” said Ingham. “If regulation of the press becomes over-heavy, then PR people will simply accelerate their already fierce drive to digital. That makes it all the more vital our industry understands and owns digital.”

CIPR CEO Jane Wilson, meanwhile, noted that “any new body tasked with regulating media activity must understand and support the role that ‘blogs’ and other social media play as outlets for individual freedom of speech and expression.”

Many observers have criticised the Report for devoting just one page to the internet, and for attempting to distinguish between ‘traditional’ and ‘online’ news. Leveson suggests that the internet operates in an “ethical vacuum” and states that online information is considered less trustworthy than traditional print media.

This approach, says the head of one social media agency, "ignores reality."

"Part of the very real pressure on traditional media brands is [the] content challenge from the citizen with a mobile phone or computer, using social media and networks to publish 'news', unrestricted by boring details like fact-checking," said Sociagility co-founder Tony Burgess-Webb.

"This is the era of the 'new Grubbe Street' and any mainstream media regulatory framework which ignores this pressure is not sustainable."

However, Diffusion MD Daljit Bhurji said that criticism of the Report's focus was unwarranted. 

“Leveson had a very clear remit to look into the practices of the print press, so the emphasis by some placed on his lack of focus on social media has been a clever tactic to distract and discredit," said Bhurji.

"We currently have different regulatory regimes for press and broadcast media in the UK, so the argument that Leveson’s proposals are undermined because they wouldn’t also apply to social media is disingenuous at best.”

Industry poll

A PRCA survey of PR agency leaders and in-house comms directors found opinion split over the Report’s merits. A slim majority (43 percent) of the 110 respondents agreed with Lord Justice Leveson that the press should be regulated by an independent, self-regulatory body that is underpinned by statutory legislation.

However, sizeable minorities favoured a model that involved either a newspaper ombudsman (31 percent) or giving the existing Press Complaints Commission (PCC) tougher powers (26 percent). No respondents favoured strict statutory regulation.

There is, though, more consensus on whether the Report will have a positive impact on the PR industry. 52 percent believe this, with only 18 percent suggesting it would have a negative impact.

The Holmes Report asked the heads of the UK’s two PR trade bodies for their views of the Leveson Report’s impact on the industry.

Francis Ingham, chief executive, PRCA

“Nobody can really know the impact on the PR industry. Not least because how much of Leveson will be implemented also can't be known yet due to the strange political times of the moment.

But, two issues stand out to me.

First, PR is intrinsically linked to freedom of speech and a free press. It's no coincidence that the two centres of PR expertise -the UK and the US - happen to be based in the countries with the longest history of free speech and a free press. So reducing press freedom must surely impact the PR industry.

Second, the glaring omission here is social media. If regulation of the press becomes over-heavy, then PR people will simply accelerate their already fierce drive to digital. That makes it all the more vital our industry understands and owns digital.”

Jane Wilson, CEO, CIPR

“Without a free and open press, the public relations profession would be hindered in upholding its commitment to transparency, accountability and professional standards, as outlined in the CIPR’s code of conduct.

Any new body tasked with regulating media activity must understand and support the role that ‘blogs’ and other social media play as outlets for individual freedom of speech and expression.

Lord Leveson’s report shows that active steps must be taken to rebuild public trust and confidence in the professional standards of the press and the integrity of their relationships with groups such as politicians and the police, in light of the clear abuses of individuals freedom, as laid out in the report.

The CIPR is clear that professionalism in both journalism and public relations, particularly openness and honesty, is key to our democracy, promotes healthy public discourse and encourages accurate reportage. Accountability to clear and publicly agreed and available standards is the only way to rebuild public trust in journalism.”

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