Society welcomes Ofcom assurances on online harms remit

Posted on: February 28, 2020 by Claire Meadows

The Society has today welcomed assurances by Ofcom that it would not seek to curtail the ‘editorial freedom’ of news sites if it is given powers to regulate online content by the government.

Writing in The Times yesterday, Kevin Bakhurst, Content Group Director of Ofcom, said that concerns that the watchdog wished to “police” the internet by shutting down websites or censoring content were “unfounded”.

Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society of Editors said: “The Society is pleased to see assurances by Ofcom that it does not see its role as encroaching upon the independence of online news platforms if, as expected, its remit is broadened under forthcoming Online Harms legislation. The print press in the UK already has an effective regulator in the Independent Press Standards Organisation to which the vast majority of publications are members.

“The Society strongly supports measures to tackle online harms such as child abuse, terrorism and self-harm but the media must continue to be free to report and debate important issues that are considered legal. We await the publication of the legislation in the Spring and hope that the promised protections for freedom of expression come to fruition.”

Bakhurst’s assurances came after the-then Culture Secretary, Baroness Morgan and Home Secretary Priti Patel announced earlier this month that the government is minded to appoint communications watchdog Ofcom as the regulator to enforce rules to make the internet a safer place. The announcement came as the government published its initial response to the public consultation on the Online Harms White Paper.

Following the announcement, the Society called for assurances that safeguards would be built into any Online Harms legislation to protect the freedom of the press. The Society also welcomed what appeared to be a distancing by the government of original ambitions to tackle fake news on the web by addressing so-called disinformation which it fears could lead to heavy-handed censorship by digital platforms.

Writing under an article titled ‘Online regulation poses no threat to free speech’ Bakhurst responded to what he described as “misgivings” over the effect any broadening of Ofcom’s remit may have on freedom of expression.

He said: “If given the job, we would aim to build on our work as the media regulator. We would act sensibly and proportionately, focusing on the most serious and widespread harm, especially to children – not hounding small businesses or seeking to curtail the editorial freedom of news sites.”

He went on to say that alongside being independent from government, Ofcom’s current work did not see it censor content ahead of broadcast and that free speech was central to its role as a UK watchdog.

He wrote: “Open expression is the lifeblood of the internet. Free speech is the beating heart of our democracy, values and modern society. It is also central to our work as the UK’s broadcasting watchdog.”

“Our powers to sanction broadcasters who breach our rules apply only after a programme has aired. In fact, the clear, fair and respected code that we enforce on TV and radio acts as a strong deterrent against poor behaviour.

“We are already legally required to secure audience protection in a way that best guarantees freedom for broadcasters to transmit a range of ideas – and your right to receive them. Far from undermining free speech, good regulation can and does support it.”

Read the piece on The Times here.