Government confirms press exemption for new communications offencesThe government has confirmed that it will include a press exemption for new communications offences in the upcoming Online Safety Bill.Included in a statement on Friday (4 February 2022) by Minister for Tech, Chris Philp MP, the government confirmed that it would be accepting the recommended harm-based communications offence, false communications offence and threatening communications offence, as laid out in the Law Commission’s ‘Modernising Communications Offences’ report, published in July 2021.
The offences will be brought into law through the Online Safety Bill, Philp confirmed, and would include a press exemption under the general harm-based communications offence and the knowingly false communications offence.
Responding to the statement, the Society of Editors’ Executive Director Dawn Alford welcomed the government’s recognition of the importance of protecting freedom of expression in the bill.
She said: “The Society welcomes the government’s confirmation that a press exemption for new communications offences will be included in the upcoming Online Safety Bill.
“While the Society wholeheartedly supports the government’s efforts to make the internet a safer place, it is essential that the Online Safety Bill includes broad and workable protections to ensure that the media can continue to fulfil its vital work in the public interest.”
The press exemption under the new offences would be included to “help ensure that the criminal law is focused on the most harmful behaviour whilst protecting freedom of expression”, Philp confirmed.
He said: “The current offences are sufficiently broad in scope that they could constitute a disproportionate interference in the right to freedom of expression. The new offences will protect freedom of expression and, in the case of the harm-based offence by increasing the threshold of harm to serious distress, will ensure that communications which individuals find offensive, such as the expression of a view they do not like or agree with, will not be caught.
“We have also accepted the Law Commission’s recommendation to include a press exemption within the general harm-based communications offence and the knowingly false communications offence. Whilst we do not expect the new offences will capture communication made by the media, including this press exemption demonstrates the government’s commitment to upholding media freedom.”