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17 October 2019

Morgan: Online Harms Regime Will Not Impact Upon Press Freedom

A new regulatory framework for the tech giants, designed to crackdown on online harms, will not impact upon freedom of the press which must be preserved, Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan has told MPs.

Speaking yesterday at a Select Committee session on the work of the DCMS, Ms Morgan said that she “absolutely” supported the previous Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright’s position that “journalistic or editorial content” would not be affected and that a new regulator would not seek to duplicate the work of IPSO.

Asked by Select Committee chairman Damian Collins where she saw the limits of freedom of expression on the internet, Ms Morgan responded “I think my predecessor wrote very clearly to the editors and to the press that what is proposed in the Online Harms White Paper is not intended to limit freedom of expression or freedom of the press and I absolutely support him and subscribe to that.”

She added: “I’m not sure, Mr Chairman, if I can sit here today and say ‘this is the limit of freedom of expression’ because I don’t think it is for the Culture Secretary to set that out. But we are very, very conscious that we’ve got to preserve and protect freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of speech in the course of introducing this legislation.” 

Mr Collins responded: “There’s freedom of the press, there’s freedom for organisations that you know where they are, and you can complain to them. One of the problems with freedom of expression on the internet is when it’s abusive and it’s done by people you can’t trace, you can’t take them to court, there’s nowhere you can go.”

The News Media Association, which met recently with Ms Morgan to discuss headline press industry issues, has called for a “robust and comprehensive” exemption for news media publishers and their content from the new regulatory framework.

The NMA has warned that the proposals pose “profound dangers to press freedom” because, as currently drafted, national and local news publishers would fall within the scope of the new regime. 

Asked whether legal liability would rest with the platforms, Ms Morgan responded: “I do think that there are responsibilities. It’s not enough to say, ‘I’m a platform I’m not a publisher’ I think those days have passed.”

Ms Morgan said it was important to get the new regime right and that there had been 2,300 responses to the White Paper which officials were working through.

She said she hoped Government would issue a response to the White Paper before Christmas and that pre-legislative scrutiny would take place within the next 12 months.