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11 April 2019

Online Harms: Culture Secretary Moves To Reassure Publishers Over Press Freedom Fears

Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright has moved to reassure publishers that a new regulator for the tech giants will not impact upon journalistic freedom of expression and that the Government’s stance on press regulation has not changed.

During a House of Commons debate on the Online Harms White Paper on Monday, MPs raised concerns about the impact of a new regulator on news publishers, with Rachel Maclean MP, Redditch, asking the Culture Secretary if he could confirm that the measures would not impact upon local papers which “do a fantastic job of holding us local politicians to account.”

Mr Wright responded: “I can confirm that. We are concerned here with user-generated content, not with the activities of journalists or their editors. I would go further and say that it seems to me that the press—both local and national—and recognised journalists who do a good job of producing authoritative, sourced work are part of the solution, not part of the problem, particularly to the disinformation that has been identified across the House as one of the fundamental harms we are concerned about.”

In a letter to the Society of Editors, copied to the News Media Association, Mr Wright stressed that a new regulator would not seek to “duplicate” the work of IPSO and areas “where services are already well regulated.”

Mr Wright said: “Journalistic or editorial content will not be affected by the regulatory framework. Furthermore, the regulator will have a legal duty to pay due regard to protecting users’ rights online, particularly their privacy and freedom of expression. We are clear that the regulator will not be responsible for policing truth and accuracy online.  

“This Government absolutely upholds the core principle of freedom of expression, recognising the invaluable role a free press plays in our cultural and democratic life. I hope this letter reassures of our intentions, and that we are seeking to build sufficient safeguards into our proposals to protect these freedoms.

“We are consulting on the scope of our regulations, and I am keen that we work closely with you and the press industry to ensure our proposals are effective, proportionate and do not have unintended consequences.”

During the debate on Monday, James Cartlidge MP called for clarity about the extent to which “the new duty of care impacts on the issue of publisher versus platform” otherwise the courts “will make that interpretation for us.”

Mr Wright responded: “Harking back to a former life, in my experience there is always a risk of court involvement, but we should seek to be as clear as possible about the responsibilities of online companies. Whatever we choose to call them—platform, publisher or something else—it is their responsibilities and what they are engaged in doing that matter.

"That is what we are seeking to achieve, and once we have defined that with clarity, the necessary powers will need to be available to a regulator to deal with when that does not happen.”