Platforms must allow “legitimate debate” around Covid vaccines, says Media Minister

Posted on: December 1, 2020 by Claire Meadows

Platforms must have mechanisms in place to allow legitimate comment and debate around issues such as future coronavirus vaccine treatments, the Media Minister has said.

Speaking to the Society of Editors (SoE) Executive Director Ian Murray as part of the Society’s In Discussion With… series of keynote talks for its Virtual Conference for 2020, John Whittingdale MP discussed topics such as efforts to tackle the dominance of social media giants, the progress and scope of online harms legislation and abuse against journalists online.  

Discussing the government’s efforts to tackle the spread of misinformation and disinformation online, Whittingdale said that while it was important that “myths and scare stories” were not allowed to thwart efforts to defeat Covid-19 through future vaccine take-up, measures must also be taken by platforms to ensure that “legitimate debate” and comment around future vaccines is not arbitrarily removed without any appeal process in place.

He said: “Our success in beating the Covid virus will depend strongly on vaccine and vaccine take-up so the last thing we want to do is to allow myths and scare stories to be propagated about the vaccine so that is why we have already had conversations with the platforms about countering that. On the other hand though, where there is legitimate debate on scientific grounds or anything else, I think there needs to be a mechanism by which people can appeal against arbitrary decisions.”

Whittingdale, former chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee (DCMS), said that the government had been clear on the content it expected to be taken down and that it was not anticipated that legitimate comment and discussion around vaccines in “reputable publications” would come under the scope of efforts to tackle misinformation online.

He said: “The kind of stories that we will be very clear that we expect action to be taken against include those which have no basis in science and are leading to fear in the general populous or, indeed, actual damage…at the beginning of the Covid crisis, it was widely being claimed that this was somehow all the creation of 5G mobile phone masts and that led to 100 physical attacks on mobile phone masts which, at a time when we are relying on digital technology to get by, was extremely dangerous. It is that kind of completely groundless, fearmongering which we will expect action to be taken against. What is a legitimate debate in a reputable publication is a different matter.”

Addressing the announcement last week that the government intended to create a Digital Markets Unit that will look to tackle the dominance of digital giants and govern the commercial relationship that platforms had with publishers, Whittingdale said that the “absolutely critical” report produced by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) earlier this year showed an urgent need to reset the balance between platforms and publishers.  

He said: “The government’s response to the CMA report is that we have essentially accepted all of the recommendations. It will lead to the establishment of the new Digital Markets Unit under the auspices of the CMA which will have the job of ensuring that there are proper codes of conduct to ensure a fair distribution of revenues.

“The CMA report is absolutely critical because the more that people rely upon online distribution of news, we need to make sure that the economics work both in terms of advertising revenue and of course in terms of subscription.”

The discussion, recorded ahead of the announcement today (1 December 2020) that Facebook had struck a deal with mainstream UK media outlets to pay millions of pounds a year to licence their content, saw the Minister say that the government was focused on working with platforms to introduce an effective framework through competition law. Distancing himself from calls by the House of Lords Communications Committee last week for the government to force digital platforms to pay news publishers for the right to use content similar to proposals in Australia, Whittingdale said that it was proving quite difficult to drive forward the measures in Australia and that, at present, the UK government was focused on introducing an effective framework through competition law.

He said: “We are in touch with the Australians to watch what is happening there and we will continue to do that. I think the hope of the government is to have a robust framework within competition law enforced by the Digital Markets Unit will address a lot of the problems. Obviously, we will watch that carefully and we do not rule out further action.”

“The platforms know that the government is absolutely clear that this is going to happen, and the Unit will be in place so obviously we will be talking to the platforms about those codes of conduct straight away. I would hope that it may be possible to get something in place before legislation is enacted but the fact that legislation is coming I hope will provide very good spur to try and achieve agreement between publishers and the platforms.”

The full In Discussion With…interview with the Media Minister John Whittingale MP is available here from 12 Noon on Tuesday 1 December 2020. Details of all the Society’s remaining conference talks and debates this week alongside how to register are available here.