The Society of Editors has welcomed assurances from the Prime Minister and the newly appointed Minister for Culture, that the government will seek to overturn a decision in the House of Lords to shackle press freedom.
But Society Executive Director Ian Murray commented that it was very worrying that a majority of unelected peers appeared to approve of measures that would undermine the media.
“Even if we put to one side the obvious party political games being played here, for so many of those who have a hand in deciding how our country is safeguarded to believe the best way forward is to threaten to bankrupt newspapers if they carry out investigative journalism is appalling,” said Murray.
The Society’s comments follow last night’s vote in the House of Lords in favour of amendments to the Data Protection Bill requiring newspapers taken to court over alleged data breaches during investigation to pay all costs even if they win their case.
Publishers could only escape from the draconian clause, which it is feared would see some newspapers close down, if they signed up to the government-backed press regulator IMPRESS funded by tycoon Max Mosley. The vast majority of newspapers, both national and local, belong to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) which is free from government control.
The Lords also voted by 238 votes to 239 for another inquiry into the press similar to the Leveson Inquiry yet this time shorn of any requirement to probe the actions of the police or politicians – a move described as ‘cynical’ by some following the decision.
Culture Secretary Matt Hancock, appointed to the role by Teresa May in her cabinet reshuffle this week, reacted rapidly to the vote, tweeting his commitment to overturn the decisions in the House of Commons.
His Tweet read: “House of Lords have just voted to restrict Press Freedom. This vote will undermine high quality journalism, fail to resolve challenges the media face and is a hammer blow to local Press. We support a free press and will seek to overturn these amendments in the Commons.”
The vow to overturn the amendments was supported by the Prime Minister.
Answering questions following a speech in London, May said: “I think that the impact of this vote would undermine high-quality journalism and a free press.
“I think it would particularly have a negative impact on local newspapers, which are an important underpinning of our democracy.
“I believe passionately in a free press. We want to have a free press that is able to hold politicians and others to account and we will certainly be looking to overturn this vote in the House of Commons.”
For the Society, Murray said that he welcomed both the Prime Minister and the Culture Secretary’s swift condemnation of what is an appalling attack on press freedom and investigative journalism in the UK.
He added: “What an appalling image to send across the world where the UK is seen as a beacon of light for journalists and indeed populations fighting against repressive regimes whose first act of oppression is usually to close down a free media for fear of what it will expose.
“Yet here we are, the home of free speech and freedom of expression, and in our Mother of Parliaments we have peers with a full understanding of what they are doing voting effectively to put an end to investigative journalism, bully publishers into coming under state control and probably close down local newspapers for good. And all this against a backdrop of voting to exempt themselves and the police from the inquiry into the media they feel is still so essential. The sheer hypocrisy of it beggars belief.”