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11 January 2018

PM Vows To Overturn Lords Votes to Curb Press Freedom

Votes in the House of Lords  for a broad Leveson-style enquiry into the media industry and punitive costs sanctions to be inserted into the data protection regime must be overturned to avoid damaging local newspapers, the Prime Minister has said today. 

The Metro reported Theresa May as saying: "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."

Newly-appointed Culture Secretary Matt Hancock responded to the votes last night by tweeting that the proposals will “restrict press freedoms” and deal a “hammer blow to local press.” 

Environment Secretary Michael Gove also lent his support to the Culture Secretary tweeting: “Matt is absolutely right - free media is vital to democracy and local press should not be fettered in this way.”

Last night during a debate on the Data Protection Bill, peers voted in favour of an amendment tabled by Baroness Hollins to launch an enquiry into the wider media industry - broadcast, online and print by 238 votes to 209.  Peers also voted for amendments to introduce a Section 40-style clause into the data protection regime tabled by Earl Attlee by 211 votes to 200, a majority of just 11.

The News Media Association said: “Legislation intended to make our data protection laws fit for the digital age is being used as a backdoor route by peers to enforce state-backed press regulation and obstruct investigative journalism, diminishing the public right to know.

“Hundreds of national and local news media editors and publishers across the UK are united in their fierce opposition to these cynical attempts to establish a costly and unnecessary, taxpayer-funded statutory public enquiry into the wider media industry and to introduce another punitive version of crippling Section 40 costs sanctions, enforcing state licensing of newspapers and inflicting huge damage on a free press.”

In the debate last night, Lords highlighted the profound dangers of a new enquiry into the media industry, pointing out that the media landscape had changed significantly and the industry was now looking to address the challenges of the future.

Speaking for the Government, Lord Keen of Elie said the Government opposed the amendments, saying that the Government was following due process with the Leveson Inquiry and consulting with Sir Brian Leveson to take his view on whether part two should proceed.

Lord Keen said: “We clearly do not need two public inquiries going on at the same time into the same issues: that is where we would end up, on one view of this process. We have to take events in their proper order and this amendment is plainly not in its proper order; it is plainly premature and cuts across the present statutory process that is being carried on pursuant to the Inquiries Act 2005.”

Speaking about Lord Attlee’s amendment, he said: “We understand the serious nature of the matter before us and it will be fully addressed but we do not believe that at this time it is appropriate to advance a provision similar to Section 40 but only in relation to data protection.

“There is a much wider issue at stake here and that is the issue that needs to be properly addressed and bottomed out. At the end of the day it would not be appropriate simply to carve out one provision on data protection for the purposes of this Bill in order to replicate the sorts of provisions that we see in Section 40 of the 2013 Act.”

During the debate, Lord Black of Brentwood pointed to the challenges facing the media industry and said that an enquiry would be seeking to investigate a landscape that has now moved on.

He added: “We should be looking now at how we can support free media by working out how best to regulate the currently completely unregulated online platforms of Google and Facebook, rather than heaping yet more burdens on a part of the media that is more heavily regulated than anywhere in the western world, constantly scrutinised and buckling under serious commercial pressure.”

Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 which would introduce punitive costs sanctions for news media outlets even if their reporting was vindicated by the courts which was described as “perverse” in the debate.

Speaking out against Section 40, Viscount Hailsham said:  “I am not in support of it. First, I am against making a distinction in law between an approved and an unapproved regulator. I am bound to say that when I look at IPSO, I do not find it lacking; it seems to be a perfectly constituted and responsible regulator.

“I certainly do not want to make a distinction in law between Impress and IPSO. I very much hope that IPSO, which is backed by the industry, will get much greater support than it has hitherto received.”

Lord Pannick said Earl Attlee’s amendment “would introduce a penal provision on costs that cannot be justified. To say to the press that unless they join an approved regulator they must pay the costs of a data protection claim, even if it is an unjustified claim, is simply perverse.

“I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lester, who has already indicated that this would be a manifest breach of this country's obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, because of the chilling effect that it would inevitably have on valuable investigative journalism.”

Lord Lester of Herne Hill added: “The rest of the free world that believes in free speech looks with amazement at these debates and thinks how on earth can we be wasting time debating this kind of thing when the press has done what it has done.

“With Alan Moses, a really independent Court of Appeal judge as the chair and Anne Lapping, a very independent non-lawyer, as the deputy chair of IPSO, having set up a scheme, why on earth are we wasting time in going over past history instead of letting them get on with it.”