The Olympics have brought Twitter into the news, as millions of spectators give their instant opinions on the games and the athletes. Some of it is illiterate and hurtful, but there is little control, and freedom of speech is gaining ground as the internet principle. It was reported recently that a man who tweeted in frustration that he wanted to blow up an airport because it had ground to a halt escaped conviction; the judge said that it was obviously not “menacing”, which is what was required for a criminal offence. Freedom of expression on the internet contrasts with the constraints placed on newspaper reporting, and this makes the next topic of investigation by my Select Committee on Communications very timely. It is “convergence”, namely a study of the ways in which broadcasting, television, print journalism and social media are coming together, often all accessible on one handheld device. Does it therefore make sense to regulate these outlets separately or not at all? what will be the rationale for the TV licence if the audience abandons the fixed TV set and watches the programmes on the computer or ipad? The Committee invites submissions from the public to help it to focus on the most important issues arising out of convergence.
All this focus on journalism also made the investigative journalism debate on 25 July in the Grand Committee very interesting. It arose out of the report by my committee on Investigative Journalism in February this year – http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201012/ldselect/ldcomuni/256/256.pdf. You can read my speech here – http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201213/ldhansrd/text/120725-gc0001.htm#12072541000339 at col. GC331. It seems to me that since younger people are less likely to read newspapers and be influenced by them, and more likely to access news digitally, the influence of newspapers on voting habits has been exaggerated and that the Leveson Inquiry may well be the last gasp of an old order. A more personalised and unregulated form of news gathering and reading is taking over, certainly if one tweets. I also said that it was time that we knew more about journalists – whether they were being paid or paying in relation to stories, what gifts and hospitality they receive (this idea comes from Baroness O’Neill’s Reuters Memorial Lecture 2011 – http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/fileadmin/documents/presentations/The_Rights_of_Journalism_and_Needs_of_Audiences.pdf
I added to this that we ought to know the educational and ethnic background of journalists. They are always calling for more transparency in relation to the social mobility, gender and ethnicity data of politicians, trustees and professionals. Journalists should not exempt themselves from this scrutiny, given their influence. And then today on Radio 4 Thinking Allowed programme called “Jobs for the Boys”, the presenter Laurie Taylor took up the theme. Unsurprisingly, research from the Sutton Trust, referred to on the programme (http://www.suttontrust.com/news/news/over-half-the-countrys-top-journalists-went-to-private-schools/) has unearthed that over half of the top journalists were privately educated and about 80% attended Oxford and Cambridge. So no more lectures from them please about exclusivity in universities and the professions.