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PCC bares teeth at bloggers

Then puts them back in glass next to bed

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Comment UK bloggers can this week sleep a little easier in their beds. The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has just delivered a first historic ruling in respect of a journalist's blog.

However, unofficial private bloggers, no matter how scurrilous, remain safely outside the PCC's remit unless they decide freely to subject themselves to the strictures of the Editors' Code of Practice.

Most reckon this is about as likely as turkeys voting for an early Christmas: can anyone seriously envisage the likes of Aulde Holborne or Guido Fawkes willingly submitting themselves to external moderation?

Publishing history arrived courtesy of a PCC ruling that an official blog by Spectator columnist Rod Liddle had breached its Code of Conduct.

In December 2009 Mr Liddle wrote a blog on the Spectator's official website that made the possibly unwise assertion that the "overwhelming majority" of London's violent crime was carried out by young Afro-Caribbean men.

A Mr Oli Bird of London complained that this posting contained inaccurate information in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice.

Liddle's claim was demonstrably untrue. Statistics from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) showed that in the area covered by the Metropolitan police force, the majority of arrests for notifiable offences were of white people, while black people marginally "out-performed" whites in just one category of crime - robbery.

The PCC acknowledged that the nature of a blog post is often provocative and conducive to discussion - and that there had been several comments taking issue with Liddle's point of view. However,they did not agree that the magazine could rely on publishing critical reaction - or comment - as a way of evading its responsibilities under the Code.

In an official statement, they took issue with what they considered an "unsubstantiated claim" on the Spectator's official site. They went on: "Nor could it [the Spectator] successfully argue that the claim was purely the columnist's opinion - rather, it was a statement of fact. As such, the Commission believed that 'the onus was on the magazine to ensure that it was corrected authoritatively online'."

PCC director Stephen Abell added: "This is a significant ruling because it shows that the PCC expects the same standards in newspaper and magazine blogs that it would expect in comment pieces that appear in print editions.

"There is plenty of room for robust opinions, views and commentary but statements of fact must still be substantiated if and when they are disputed."

Speaking to the BBC, Liddle expressed the view that this ruling was simply wrong. He said: "It seems to suggest that had I not used the word 'overwhelming', they wouldn't have come down against me.

"I'll confess and maybe I shouldn't have used the word 'overwhelming' in all the cases I quoted.

"But a blog is different because it has to be a conversation, otherwise there's no point in having a blog."

The implications of this ruling may now impact far more widely.

First, and most obviously this represents a tidying-up: the long-delayed application of print standards of accuracy when it comes to official publications online. It goes further than the observations of professional bloggers, potentially including anything published on a commercial site that the site management could have control over.

A spokesman for the PCC told the Reg: "The PCC's remit covers all editorial material on newspaper and magazine titles' websites that voluntarily adhere to the Code."

He further explained that this included material where "the editor of the newspaper or magazine is responsible for it and could reasonably have been expected both to exercise editorial control over it and apply the terms of the Code". That most definitely includes not only blogs, but also comments and replies to blogs: even forum content.

Second, and slightly less alarming: this is not the start of PCC empire-building. In the past, the PCC chair has expressed the view that unofficial bloggers might also be brought within the remit of the PCC code of practice.

This, according to the current chair Baroness Buscombe, should happen on a voluntary basis only. In response to a question from the Reg, she clarified her earlier remarks, saying: "This must not lead to some form of statutory interference. Rather, a system of self-regulation (such as exists by the PCC for newspapers) would be more appropriate, if any bloggers wished to go down that route.

"I say 'wish', because any advance in this area would have to be consensual. Self-regulation is about collaboration between willing parties".

Not all blogers agree. However, the good news this week is that although regulation of official publications online may have just taken a giant step forward, unofficial bloggers remain unaffected - for now. ®

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