The Society of Editors has condemned plans to punish newspapers who do not sign up to a state recognised regulator as a brazen assault on free speech.
The Labour Party amendment to the Data Protection Bill to be voted on by MPs tomorrow (Wednesday) is simply an attempt to stifle a free press in the UK by backdoor methods, says the Society.
“It is frightening the lengths that some of our parliamentarians will seemingly go to to close down voices they do not like,” commented the Society’s Executive Director Ian Murray.
“How many times do we hear MPs professing that they recognise and support the need for a free press and then cynically rush to support amendments like this which attempt to hide press restrictions beneath a veneer of fine words.
“At least those who wish to silence voices in the media they do not like should have the guts to admit they prefer a press hobbled by financial and regulatory threats to one that can and does hold them to account. I just hope the majority of MPs who truly believe in democracy and the part a free press plays in its defence and survival will vote down these appalling amendments.”
Labour’s amendments if passed would see all national newspapers and the majority of local and regional newspapers being forced to cover all of the legal costs of fighting action taken against them for claimed breaches of data protection laws even if they win.
A separate amendment calls for a new wide-ranging inquiry into the role of the media in general at a cost of millions to the tax payer.
The amendments would not apply to papers who sign up to a state-recognised regulator such as Impress. The majority of the UK’s national and regional papers are signed up to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).
The proposals exempt those papers who are not-for-profit which would allow the Guardian and Observer titles to escape the clauses, a move seen by some in the industry as politically motivated.
“It is frankly ludicrous for one side of the political debate to be seen to be closing down the voices of only those papers that oppose them, and then seeking to protect those publications who support them. The Society does not support any side of the political debate, but it does campaign for freedom of expression overall,” added Murray.
“Put simply if these amendments go through they raise the certainty of many regional and local papers being forced out of business.
“At a national and local level there will be a severe chilling effect on investigative reporting especially into areas where politicians and those in powerful positions would rather the media did not look. What a gift to regimes around the world who allow no press freedom or scrutiny and who can now point to the UK as an example for dictators to follow.”