Leveson report ignores the impact of the internet

The judge’s mammoth publication fails to grasp the impact of smartphones, Twitter and even drones on how news is made

Disruption is a brutal-sounding word; it sounds like something being torn apart irrevocably, and replaced by something utterly new. Judging by the Leveson report, the judge hasn’t been thinking about it much. Pity. He should have.

Though we’re not often aware of it, disruption is happening all around us, particularly to newspapers and magazines, but in other industries too. Five years ago, in December 2007, if you were running the mobile phone company Nokia, or BlackBerry-maker RIM, or Microsoft’s Windows Mobile division, or Palm, things looked pretty good. The smartphone business was growing fast, everyone was profitable, and the arriviste iPhone had barely sold a million devices in the previous quarter. The Android mobile OS was still an internal project at Google.

Fast forward five years, and Palm is dead, Nokia and RIM are struggling for survival, Windows Mobile has been killed off and its replacement Windows Phone is struggling to get a foothold on the smartphone ladder. The market belongs to Android, notably Samsung, and to a lesser extent Apple; and those two control 98% of the entire mobile industry’s profits. (There’s an excellent video demonstration of this from the Guardian Mobile Summit.)

The sort of phones we have now would have seemed like science fiction 20 years ago. But that’s disruption at internet speed. And while Lord Justice Leveson might not have wanted his report to gather dust, the fact that he barely delves into the reality of what’s happening to the way we consume news indicates that, like many people, he just couldn’t wrap his head around what disruption looks like.

Huge rips in the fabric of business models are caused by the arrival of something that does the same job much cheaper, or a better job at the same price; and the internet sure does that when it comes to delivering news. When more than half the population has a smartphone, and about 90% has a computer, you don’t have to hang around for a printed paper any more. Print has its charms, but so did Nokia’s old phones. Much good it did them. Disruption waits for no man, woman or business model.

Not that you’d know it from Leveson’s report. The word “internet” gets a few hundred mentions among its million words, but he never manages to lay a finger on the colossal change that’s happening. Those nude pictures of Prince Harry in Las Vegas? Viewed by 25 million people online before the Sun printed them. Those topless pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge? Viewed by an unknown number of people in the UK, despite no UK publication committing them to either paper or electrons.

Then there was the irritation caused to Leveson himself when Paul Staines, aka Guido Fawkes, published a draft of Alastair Campbell’s witness statement ahead of its “official” appearance. And on Thursday, just to point out that any regulatory mouse that the Leveson mountain might bring forth won’t affect him, Staines tweeted some of the report’s recommendations before the embargo on publication lifted at 1.30pm.

He didn’t have sight of the report, but it only takes a good friend with a mobile phone who does, and is willing to take the comparatively small risk, and voila: another cosy tie-up disrupted by the internet.

It just keeps happening. Libel laws in Britain? Disrupt them by siting your servers elsewhere (as Staines has: the Guido Fawkes blog “lives” in Ireland, to “escape Britain’s ruinous libel laws,” he told Wall Street Journal readers).

The libel payment demands from Lord McAlpine over people’s tweets could be thought of as the flipside of citizen journalism, but doesn’t affect the general direction of travel, which is that the internet is eating the newspaper industry alive. Why else did the Sun print those images of Prince Harry with the legend “the pictures you’ve seen on the internet”?

Thinking that science fiction predicts the future isn’t wise, but I always think of the scenario in John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider (a 1975 book which foresaw a world with the internet) in which a character unleashes a program that unlocks every secret stored on the world’s computers. The result isn’t pretty, but it’s a lot closer to what we’re seeing today – think superinjunctions overturned by Twitter, or MPs’ expenses crowdsourced in detail – than the cosy, cliquey world that ruled 20 or even 10 years ago.

Post-Leveson, plenty of time will be spent discussing whether Sir Humphrey Bufton-Tufton has quite the right experience to be in charge of the body that will oversee the body overseeing the behaviour of a limited number of fast-dwindling papers. Meanwhile, I think about another science fiction example, of how Philip K Dick (many of whose books have become films, such as Blade Runner and Total Recall) thought journalism would change: his assumption was that newsgathering in the future would be done by robots – in his books, they even doorstep some of the characters.

Fanciful? He also reckoned there would be self-driving cars. You know, like the ones Google has now got licensed in two US states. And perhaps you’ve heard of “drone journalism” – using unpiloted mini-aircraft to relay pictures online? But I doubt Lord Justice Leveson has. Pity. He should have.

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