The Society of Editors has welcomed the defeat of ‘anti-press’ amendments to the Data Protection Bill in the House of Commons.
The amendments, tabled by Ed Miliband MP and Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson MP called for the second part of the Leveson inquiry and for costs sanctions to be introduced in data protection cases which would see publishers pay all costs of an action – even if they win.
The first amendment, Clause 18, was added to the bill by Ed Miliband and was rejected by 304 to 295. The second amendment, Clause 20, was tabled by Tom Watson MP but was abandoned after the SNP withdrew its support for the amendment.
Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society of Editors said: ” I am delighted that common sense has prevailed and the attempt to impose appalling penalties on the UK’s free press for failing to join a state-recognised regulator has been defeated. The defeat of proposals for a costly second inquiry into the press is also to be welcomed. As MPs heard, the press has already taken great steps since the Leveson Inquiry to meet the objectives of that report.”
The vote on the bill comes on the same day that the Society welcomed a statement from the publisher of The Guardian and The Observer distancing itself from the amendments. The proposal under Clause 20 would have exempted The Guardian and The Observer and other non-profit organisations from being subject to the costs sanctions in a move which has been widely criticised and judged by some in the industry as being politically motivated.
“The UK press is never going to agree on many issues, not even how the industry should be regulated, but it is heartening that the Guardian News and Media group have underscored the importance of an equitable system that should apply evenly to all,” added Murray.
Ahead of the House of Commons vote on the amendments today, Guardian News and Media issued a statement saying that changes to the Data Protection Bill would further erode press freedom and have a severe chilling effect for the news environment in the UK.
The statement read: “The new clause 20 would mean that normally, those publishers that were not regulated by a recognised regulator would have to pay both sides’ legal costs in a data protection claim, whether they won or lost that claim.
“The new clause 20 also seeks to exempt news organisations on the basis of the location in which they publish, their ownership structure, or their levels of turnover. Such arbitrary exclusions set an unwelcome precedent in the context of press freedom. What is needed is a system that is fair for all – the current proposals are not.
“The inclusion of Condition A has been widely interpreted as ensuring that news organisations structured along the lines of the Guardian and the Observer should be excluded from the scope of the broader clause. This clause was not discussed with Guardian News & Media and we disagree with attempts to impose a selective sanction on the media.
“While the model used by the Scott Trust is recognised in the amendment as maintaining high standards of journalism, it is a structure that is unique among UK publishers and rare globally as a model for news organisations. We do not believe that singling out one model of ownership for news organisations in this way is a constructive approach. We live in an age of diverse ownership, constitutions and business models underpinning news organisations in this country and around the world. This amendment implies that just one ownership model can result in the production of high quality journalism, which is simply not correct.
“There is an important debate to be had about press standards, but the Data Protection Bill should not be used as a vehicle for imposing an unfair and partial system on publishers.”
The debate can be watched here.