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Online Harms laws could wreck UK free press warns Society of Editors

Posted on: July 2, 2019 by Charlie Bowden

The proposed Online Harms law offers the chance for a future government hostile to criticism to control the UK’s press and media, warns the Society of Editors.

Responding to the consultation to the government’s Online Harms White Paper, the Society says that unless there are irreversible safeguards created to protect the media from attack, the proposed laws offer a blueprint to politicians who wish to silence critics.

“While we accept that the present government is sincere in its wish to protect a free, vibrant and plural media in the UK, the proposed law to restrict online harms runs the risk of creating the unintended consequence of a means for a regime hostile to the press to attack its vital online presence,” warned Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors.

“We are calling for irreversible clauses in the proposed law that exempt the media from this legislation, but also for steps to be taken to ensure freedom of expression is not harmed in a wider sense. It is also essential any new regulatory body does not impinge on the media and should be free of political control and interference to ensure freedom of expression.

“No one wants to see online content that supports terrorism, abuse, gang violence and self-harm, but a careful line needs to be drawn between clamping down on unlawful and dangerous content and allowing open debate on important issues.

“The Society is particularly concerned where the proposed law attempts to prevent disinformation and fake news. Who will decide what is disinformation? It does not take too much imagination to see the eventual creation of some sort of Orwellian ‘Department of Truth’ emerging from a badly-thought through piece of legislation, no matter how well meaning.

“It would be better if the new law focussed on preventing illegal content from appearing on line rather than becoming bogged down in deciding what constitutes fake news,” added Murray.

The Society’s submission to the Department of Digital, Media, Culture and Sports can be found here. 

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