Society President gives evidence to ‘online harms’ committee

Posted on: October 22, 2021 by admin

The President of the Society of Editors, Alison Gow, has given evidence to the Parliamentary Joint Committee scrutinising the proposed Online Safety Bill which aims to establish a new regulatory framework to tackle harmful content online. 

The Bill could see Ofcom given the power to fine social media companies millions of pounds if they fail to remove and limit the spread of illegal content such as child sexual abuse, terrorist material and suicide content as well disinformation and misinformation.

Assurances have been made by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport that news content will be protected and that safeguards for freedom of expression will also be built into the legislation. It is proposed that news publishers’ online journalism and reader comments will be exempt. There will also be specific measures to protect journalistic content when it is shared on social media platforms.

Dawn Alford, executive director of the Society of Editors said: “Along with the News Media Association, we have campaigned for a total exemption for journalistic content to be written into the legislation. However, we remain concerned that the platforms will resort to the use of algorithms to remove content with the risk that legitimate news content from media organisations will also be taken down. Effectively it would mean the platform giants in the US will be able to decide what British users will be able to read.”

The Joint Committee also took in opinions on the proposed protections that would allow media organisations the right to appeal against news content being taken down, with the media industry panel saying such a procedure would be unworkable and would take too much time.

Society President Gow told the committee that smaller media groups would lack the resources to do so and said that the time and effort it currently takes to resolve issues that arise from social media take downs should not be underestimated.

Gow, who is Audience an Content Director at Reach North West said: “The Online Safety Bill seeks to bring some order and accountability to internet platforms, especially with regards to social media; however, journalism, freedom of expression and the public right to know must not be diminished as a result.

 “It is a serious concern that valid news content will be swept away by broad brush algorithms, which comply with the letter of the law but can’t discern context or nuance; publishers will then need to invest time, money and effort reinstating it without any guarantee of success.

 “Given that there are laws, codes of conduct and independent regulators which already govern the actions of journalists and news publishers, they should not only be totally exempt, but they must also be protected from future interpretations and adaptations, especially those which may arise during changes of administration.”

The Prime Minister has this week announced that the Online Safety Bill will have a second reading before Christmas.

News Media Association chief executive Owen Meredith said: “This is vitally important legislation and there is an understandable desire for speed. However, we are very concerned this may mean complex legislation with far-reaching consequences for freedom of speech and the public’s right to know does not get the proper Parliamentary scrutiny it needs.

“The Parliamentary Joint Committee currently considering the draft Bill should be allowed to conclude its detailed work and the Government to respond.”