The Society of Editors has continued to ensure that freedom of expression and a free press remain paramount in the debate surrounding the online harms bill published by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary of State Jeremy Wright. The Society has written to the Secretary of State, submitted its evidence to the consultation on the white paper and met with the Secretary of State for further consultation. The Society has also consulted widely with the industry.
The Society raised concerns that the proposals threaten basic rights to freedom of expression if not introduced with great emphasis on avoiding too draconian regulations. The Society had written to the Secretary of State outlining its concerns that the new laws designed to combat support for terrorism, child abuse, and other harmful matters on the internet would also impinge on press freedom, particularly in the area of what would be considered fake news.
The Secretary of State for the Media, Jeremy Wright, responded to the Society of Editors’ concerns regarding the protection of press freedom in the UK, giving assurances that the government’s proposed online harms bill will not affect freedom of speech nor the free press.
“This Government absolutely upholds the core principle of freedom of expression, recognising the invaluable role a free press plays in our cultural and democratic life. I hope this letter reassures you of our intentions, and that we are seeking to build sufficient safeguards into our proposals to protect these freedoms,” wrote the Secretary of State.
The Society continued to voice concern arguing that the online harms proposal appears to go too far. Despite the assurances of the present government it remains to be seen where the protections will lie to prevent future governments from using the online harms bill to silence critics and voices they do not like.
The Society submitted a 39 point conclusive response to the proposed online harms law to the Department of Digital, Media, Culture and Sport including seven clear recommendations to follow.
- There must be a clear and stated total exemption from the proposed laws and regulations/regulator for recognised media, their digital output, their digital presence on social media and other platforms and legitimate comment on their websites on any and all topics of discussion.
- The Secretary of State plays no role in the creation of a new code of practice for any proposed regulator and the new code is created by a free and impartial regulatory body with a strongly expressed assurance of freedom of expression.
- The stated ‘super complaints’ clause is better defined and open to comment and debate.
- The duty of care proposals are much better explained and thought through to ensure there is no opportunity for unintended consequences.
- Consideration be given to scrapping altogether the intent to regulate content considered as disinformation – fake news – and priority given to combatting illegal online content.
- All steps are taken to ensure no future government can tamper with the Online Harms law to attempt to regulate the media.
- Safeguards are created to ensure digital companies do not use the cheapest and simplest methods – algorithms – to carry out the regulator’s wishes, thus removing swathes of legitimate content from UK sites, media or otherwise.
We continue to challenge the potential threat to genuine journalism that the Online Harms White Paper presents.