The Society of Editors has added its voice to those expressing concern at the latest attempts by some members of the House of Lords to curb press freedom and freedom of expression.
Amendments tabled to the Data Protection Bill currently going through the House of Lords would stifle investigative journalism at its roots, commented the Society’s Executive Director Ian Murray today.
Peers are attempting to set up a new multi-million pound inquiry into all areas of the media – including the BBC – and make media companies pay for legal cases brought against them involving data protection even if they win.
“This is just another attempt by a determined but hopefully minority number of peers who seem for some strange reason obsessed with removing from the British media – broadcast, print and on-line – the ability to investigate and expose wrong-doing.
“In many ways it is quite shocking how focussed they are on this issue and seem blinkered by these backdoor shenanigans to the fact that the British people deserve and expect the open and transparent society they seem determined on destroying,” added Murray.
The amendment, tabled by Baroness Hollins, Lord Stevenson, Lord McNally and Lord Lipsey, to be moved on report on 10 January 2018, proposes the establishment of a new inquiry costing millions of pounds into news publishers, other organisations within the media and those holding personal data, whether broadcast, print or online media and journalists.
However, the Society echoes others in the media industry including the News Media Association (NMA), in stating that the statutory inquiry proposed is unnecessary, open to exploitation by those seeking to destabilise media investigations and publications, and could result in recommendations damaging to freedom of speech.
It could embroil all media organisations and their journalists – broadcast, print and online – in a far reaching, costly inquiry into any editorial coverage of any matter past, present or future, inviting complaints intended to deter and disrupt investigation.
Under the terms of reference for the proposed new inquiry, media of any description and their investigative reporters could be forced to become core participants, be they the BBC, Channel Four, ITV, independent producers, Reuters, Press Association, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Financial Times, Private Eye, Economist, Guardian, Yorkshire Post or Oxford Mail. Even the digital archives of the BFI might fall within them.
Allegations of data protection breaches, or ‘unlawful or improper conduct’ in respect of ‘personal data processing’, could encompass anything from the most trivial historic unfounded allegation of inaccuracy, or an accusation of misconduct that is not unlawful, or allegations intended to deter public interest investigations such as the Panama Papers or the Paradise Papers.
Most worryingly of all, the Inquiry might also result in recommendations highly repressive to freedom of expression, contrary to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and incompatible with UK law under the GDPR, which mandates freedom of expression and information exemptions.
In a statement, the NMA commented: “The amendment appears to be a backdoor device to pre-empt the announcement of the outcome of the Government’s consultation on whether Part Two of the Leveson Inquiry should be commenced or terminated, even though the Minister made clear at the second day of the report stage that this announcement was imminent, pending only Sir Brian Leveson’s review of the consultation responses. The proposed terms of reference for the amendment’s statutory inquiry closely resemble the Leveson Inquiry terms of reference, save for their careful omission of politicians from explicit scope of the proposed inquiry and slight amendment to allow them to be latched onto to the convenient vehicle of this Data Protection Bill.”
The Society, along with the NMA, also opposes amendments tabled by Earl Attlee, which would require newspapers and magazines not signed up to press regulator IMPRESS to pay the costs of data protection actions if sued by anyone in court, even when they successfully defend such actions. The clauses mimic section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 for data protection purposes, which would go beyond any Leveson Report recommendation.
“This amendment would punish local, regional and national newspapers and magazines merely for lawfully deciding to join IPSO, and rejecting the Royal Charter system for reasons of principle. This would be in breach of Articles 10 and 14 of the ECHR. It could encourage unfounded claims and result in crippling costs for newspapers and magazines, even though they had acted lawfully,” commented the NMA.