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EDITORIAL: Freedom of speech, or a license to censor?

An important court case is due to be heard in the United States; it is one which does not relate directly to music journalism, but it does have far-reaching implications beyond its seemingly narrow scope. It involves Apple Computers Inc and three independent websites. The issues involved are Herculean, though not overly complex, and even though the judgment itself will only be binding within the jurisdictional borders of the United States its impact will be global, and probably counter-productive. Beyond the arguments specific to this case lie a far greater one: should online journalists be offered the same protection – and by implication status - as print journalists?

It is perhaps inevitable that the sheer scale of the Internet and the power it wields would at some point be challenged and Apple’s case against these three websites has not really been viewed in the wider context of what it means; a ruling in favour of the computer company will create a quite complex problem – probably an insoluble one – for all Internet websites which purport to advance the cause of quality journalism will find themselves having to defend themselves more rigorously than perhaps they have hitherto been made to do. Apple’s contention is that the First Amendment does not universally protect an individual, and in the case of online journalism it doesn’t apply at all. It is, of course, arguable whether this case would have even reached the stage it has if the leaked information had been sourced through, say, the New York Times. But with the growth of blogs, newsgroups and the such it is becoming increasingly clear that everyone considers themselves a journalist. Beyond the crucial issue of the right of any journalist to protect their sources, something enshrined universally in every democratic country, the case’s significance – and this will have implications beyond the US borders – is whether Internet journalism should have the same distinction given to it as print journalism.

An ideal outcome will be for the judgment to state that the three websites deployed legitimate standards of journalism and that they should be accorded the same protection as newspaper journalists. This has, in fact, recently been argued by the Chief Political Correspondent of CNET News who said that, “no significant difference exists between the news-gathering techniques used by traditional reporters and the publishers of Apple news sites Think Secret, Apple Insider, and PowerPage... Apple claims that the Web writers are not ‘legitimate members of the press’ when revealing details about forthcoming products. Those actions, though, describe exactly what good journalists do - writing articles that serve their readers, rather than the parochial interests of a single corporation.”

And this is the point: Web writers, by and large, do supply a wealth of well-written, well-sourced information, whether it be through news-gathering or features or reviews. A ruling in favour of Apple will endanger that, and, damagingly, threaten freedom of speech. Since I have edited this website I have had to deal with at least three complaints (including one from a world renowned singer) which I have justified for publication on the grounds that my reviewers have had an enshrined freedom to write freely of their opinions about concerts. I cannot imagine the editor of a single newspaper in either this country or the United States who would have been approached in such a way and been asked to either amend or remove the review. It is, in part, the sheer scale of the Internet and the fact that reviews exist well beyond the sell-by-date of a newspaper that causes such difficulty for online editors; put simply, a single line of criticism is enshrined for Web eternity, for prying eyes everywhere to read, sometimes years beyond the initial date of publication. That is simply not the case with newspapers. Egos are more likely to be pricked and damaged through online reviews, and one should not discount the possibility of some artists using, unscrupulously, any ruling against online journalism that will protect their own reputations.

But a ruling in such an important market as the United States that online journalism does not offer the same integrity as print journalism does shift the balance. Not only is my right as an editor to publish what I want threatened, so is my reviewer’s right to write without fear of reprisal reviews which may well be highly negative. There are already instances of some artists and some conductors requesting press officers not to supply online journalists with press tickets. One opera house in Paris – until very recently – refused to allow online publications to illustrate reviews of their productions with photographs. Problems like these will increase if the outcome of a judgment in favour of Apple is taken to its logical conclusion. Restrictions may well be applied by record companies as well as concert halls and opera houses; with that, a loss of editorial protection with hinder the progression of serious online journalism. This might seem a hysterical reaction to something that has yet to be decided legally, but the probability of it happening isn’t one that can be excluded.

Reporters Without Borders has called for online journalists, as well as those website operators and bloggers whose work constitutes real journalism, to be accorded the same legal protections as journalists with the traditional press. It is something we should all welcome. Apple’s case has its merits – and even the most trenchant editor in support of the freedom of speech would not argue that all Web writing constitutes real journalism – but any decision must carefully weigh up what the far-reaching implications of an adverse judgment might be. Without really knowing it, Apple has perhaps begun the most important debate in the past 20 years on what the qualities of online journalism are and how it is to be viewed.

Marc Bridle



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)