Combating online harms cannot infringe on press freedom

Posted on: November 12, 2019 by Mariella Brown

Combating online harms cannot infringe on press freedom, according to a panel of leading media figures. 

Chaired by Chief Executive of Index on Censorship Jodie Ginsberg, the panel ‘Press Freedom: Balancing the Public’s Needs with the Public’s Right to Know’ concluded the conference proceedings and argued vehemently for freedom of expression.

John Whittingdale, Conservative Candidate for Maldon, warned we need to be “terribly careful” about any legislation implemented to combat online harms.

He said: “We always need to bear in mind freedom of expression and sometimes that means saying that these are things we don’t like but some of the things proposed to counter them are more harmful.”

Whittingdale argued that instead of new policy the answer is for news organisations to create a “reputation for reliability”.

John Battle, Head of Compliance at ITN, said it is likely some regulation will be enforced.

“I think we will look back on these times and think we cannot believe what was allowed to go on in 2019,” he said.

Battle continued: “It cannot be said loud enough the importance of defending basic journalistic freedom.”

Elizabeth Denham, the UK’s Information Commissioner, stressed the importance of “digital citizenry” and warned against an upcoming “noisy debate” about potential online harms.

She said: ““This is a very very very tricky area because what the white paper is discussing and what parliamentarians are discussing is putting constraints over material which is not illegal but is offensive.

“I hope that we have a very evidence based, vigorous debate.”

When asked about whether papers often succumb to ‘self-censorship’ after abuse from online trolls and pressure groups, Martin Breen, Editor of Sunday Life newspaper in Belfast said the industry should not shy away from difficult topics.

He said: “There are plenty of Saturday nights when I put the paper to bed and I know I will wake up on Sunday morning to hundreds of comments on Twitter.

“If anything when I see trolling like that, I think we’re doing something right.”

Battle agreed, and said: “There’s no easy answer but we’ve got to tackle it because we cannot normalise a lack of freedom of expression.”

Julia Atherley

The Investigations panel took places at the Society of Editors conference on November 12.