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Society offers cautious welcome to Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson’s speech

Posted on: February 6, 2019 by Charlie Bowden

The Society of Editors has given a cautious welcome to a pledge by Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson that a future Labour government would look to support public interest journalism and tackle concerns over the dominance of digital platforms.

But the Society has warned against possible threats to freedom of expression and a free press resulting from state initiatives, no matter how well intentioned.

Mr Watson outlined a future Labour government’s plans to tackle hate speech, fake news and other harmful effects of digital platforms in a speech today (Wednesday, February 6) in what he said was a bid to fix the ‘distorted digital market’ in the UK.

The proposed initiative would see some investigative and public interest journalism provided with charitable status and use grants, donations and tax exemptions to fund some media.

Mr Watson called for the creation of a digital public sphere that would provide a space for journalism that was considered to be in the public interest.

However, the Society of Editors warned that such measures if not thought through and provided with acceptable safeguards ran the risk of supporting only those media outlets that were in favour with political masters.

“That is the problem with good intentions, there is always the risk of unintended consequences,” commented the Society’s Executive Editor Ian Murray.

“Once we move into a world where someone must decide what journalism is worthy of support and what isn’t, then the system is fraught with the possibility of abuse, intentional or otherwise.

“Who is to decide what journalism is in the public interest? We all have our view, but who has the right in a free society to say, for instance, that an investigation into a corrupt politician is in the public’s interest, whereas reporting the unsavoury shenanigans of a high-profile footballer who is raking in millions from sponsorship deals is just salacious tittle-tattle? These are tricky waters to navigate.”

In his speech Mr Watson stressed the need to balance protection for those using the digital platforms with freedom of expression, but listed hate speech and fake news as necessary targets for a new regulator and a strict code of an enforceable duty of care.

“While it is extremely welcome that there should be put in place methods to fight hate speech and take down items that can cause real harm to the vulnerable, the question of what constitutes fake news and who will decide what that is is an area again fraught with dangers,” added Murray.

“It is a small step from the creation of regulations based on good intentions, to by default enabling those who would wish to curb free speech, for all manner of reasons, deciding what the public should be able to read on social media and elsewhere on the internet.

“And it is inconceivable that once the genie of regulation for such matters is out of the bottle that it will not spread then to the on-line material published by newspapers, broadcasters and other news outlets. A bid to reign in the worst excesses of those who use the digital platforms could come to harm the very freedoms we enjoy if mishandled.”

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