If Wired magazine were published in Ireland, would it be a periodical? Would its website be? Would the website be, even if there weren’t a magazine? And why do these musings matter? Well, they matter because only ‘periodicals’ will be subject to the Press Council proposed in the Defamation Bill, 2006; and whilst the defintion of periodical clearly covers print newspapers and magazines (such as Wired‘s offline edition), and probably covers content on websites associated with such offline editions, it probably doesn’t cover content published exclusively online by publications that look like newspapers or magazines but lack an offline edition. I think that it should.
This week, the Press Complaints Commission in the UK extended its remit to the online realm. Following comments to the same effect last month, the PCC on Thursday formally confirmed that it is to regulate audio-visual content on newspaper and magazine websites (PCC press release | Guardian story). Given the large amount of original content in the online editions of the UK newspapers – this week, for example, saw both the Times and the Mirror launch their redesigned online editions – this is an entirely logical move. Moreover, Mediawise suggests that the press agreed to this to pre-empt any recommendations that might emerge from the recently announced inquiry by the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee into press self-regulation. Whatever the impetus, it is the right thing to do.
Our Press Council should assume a similar jurisdiction right from the start of its deliberations. There should be no legal impediment to its doing so. The Press Council proposed in the Defamation Bill will have jurisdiction over “any periodical in circulation in the State” (section 4 of Schedule 2 to the Bill), and “periodical” includes “any version” of a periodical “published on the internet or by other electronic means” (section 2). On the one hand, it might be argued that original content on a newspaper’s website (such as the breaking news section of the Irish Times on Ireland.com) is not a “version” of a printed periodical; on the other hand, the aim of the section is plainly to cover it. I doubt that a newspaper which had subscribed to the Press Council would seriously seek to argue that its website is not subject to the Council’s authority; and even if one were to do so, I doubt whether the Council would deny itself that jurisdiction.
However, even an expansive view of the section would not seem to bring an exclusively online publication within the defintion of a “periodical”.* Wired magazine predicted that, in 2007, a major newspaper would give up printing on paper to publish exclusively online. It was an easy prediction. Since 1 January 2007, after 362 years of offline publication, the Swedish paper Post-och Inrikes Tidningar is now exclusively an online publication (hat tip to Fergus). The point of the Wired prediction was not that within two days something that had been long expected would actually happen, but that, where it has led, others – with less predictablility – will doubtless follow (maybe Wired** is laying the groundwork for such a move itself?!). One of these may be Irish, and if not this year, then at some stage in the (near) future. And this is to say nothing of the many fine exclusively online publications in Ireland and elsewhere – not merely blogs and websites, but sites that look like newspapers (such as BreakingNews.ie) and magazines (such as Silicon Republic), but without the offline cat-litter or chip-wrapper. On any reading, these are excluded from the definition of “periodical” in the Bill, and are thus unable to subscribe to the Press Council.
Some might want to. As well as the obvious burdens, there are in fact significant benefits to doing so (especially in the context of defences to defamation actions: see section 24(2)(f) of the Bill). If they want to, they should be allowed to do so. Once you are a periodical, subscription is voluntary. It might be better, therefore, to amend the definition of “periodical” in section 2, to clarify that it includes to the original online content of newspaper websites, and to extend it to cover exclusively online publications as well. This could be done simply by providing that “periodical” includes “any periodical published on the internet or by other electronic means”. It would then be for an online publication to decide, just like its offline counterparts, whether it wants to subscribe to the Press Council or not.
* Update 1 (17 February 2007): Daithí over on Lex Ferenda has already – and in a much more perceptive and provocative way – made a similar point about the identical definition of ‘periodical’ in the Privacy Bill, 2006.
** Update 2 (17 February 2007): Daithí has reminded me that it’s not that long since the print and online editions of Wired were reunited under the same owner after eight years of separation. Nevertheless, going exclusively online would still be the next logical step, at some stage.