What is media law?

Fifteen years ago I’d have told you it was what the night lawyer did as the presses groaned into life at the daily newspaper where I worked. Occasionally he’d phone me at home, raising some exasperating legal quibble that would bump my carefully crafted exclusive off the front page and on to the spike.

Cue the odd, whispered expletive.

Back then, as Ofcom chief Sharon White pointed out earlier this month, there was no Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. Netflix was still a DVD mail-order company. Barely half of us even had the internet at home.

With astonishing rapidity, the Big Tech giants – Google and Amazon included – have not so much disrupted traditional media as threatened to obliterate them. One statistic will suffice. As advertising has migrated online, Google and Facebook have grown to take a staggering 58% market share of the entire US digital ad market. That is real power.

Regulators are still playing catch-up. Not only has Big Tech eaten old media’s lunch, it has done so while dining in a far less formal restaurant.

All that is now changing. Ofcom’s White spoke of a ‘standards lottery’ that is no longer tenable, as cyber-bullying and ‘fake news’ proliferate and the ether is plagued by terrorist content and hate speech. As the government considers measures that would force the tech giants to take more responsibility for online content, White reckons Ofcom could do the job of ensuring they do so. Levelling the playing field could include forcing social media platforms to remove inappropriate online content quickly and effectively – or face hefty fines.

These issues are spawning new legal dilemmas and opportunities that are transforming the work of media lawyers. Yet how to strike a balance between protection and privacy, and freedom of expression is still a debate in its infancy. In that context, vested interests in old media with impeccable political connections are understandably keen to hobble the disrupters. This could get nasty.

[Read the Gazette’s 24 September feature on media law here]