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Data Protection Bill

Written evidence submitted by the Society of Editors (DPB40)

1. The Society of Editors has nearly 400 members in national, regional and local newspapers, magazines, broadcasting, digital media, journalism education and media law.

2. They are as different as the publications, programmes and websites they create, and the communities and audiences they serve. But they share values that matter: the universal right to freedom of expression; the importance of the vitality of the news media in a democratic society; the promotion of press and broadcasting freedom and the public’s right to know; the commitment to high editorial standards and the promotion of voluntary independent self-regulation of the press.

3. This document spells out the Society’s concerns and objections to sections of the Data Protection Bill which we believe will severely hamper investigative journalism in the UK and indeed place some newspapers at risk of closure.

4. The Society strongly supports the Government’s amendments (Nos. 50, 60, 61 and 72) to excise clauses essential to freedom of expression from the Data Protection Bill:

• Publishers of news-related material: damages and costs (clause 168);

• Publishers of news-related material: interpretative provisions (clauses 169 and 205(2)(b)); • Inquiry into issues arising from data protection breaches by news publishers (clause 142).

5. The Society is of the opinion that clauses 168 and 169 are a crude and misguided attempt to force publishers and individual titles to join a regulator under the state-sponsored Royal Charter system, something that the vast majority of publishers vehemently oppose on grounds of principle.

6. We believe that publishers will continue to refuse to join a state-sponsored regulator and as such will face the risk of severe financial penalties and, in the case of some regional titles, closure if these clauses are enacted in their present form.

7. The clauses would ensure that anyone wishing to delay, halt or punish a newspaper for a genuine enquiry will be able to entangle a publication in lengthy and expensive legal action in the knowledge there will be no cost to those bringing the action. Indeed, even if the action fails, under the proposed clauses the publication would be liable for all costs involved. Clause 168 would make investigations such as the Paradise Papers or recent Oxfam scandal all but impossible to publish. This is a dangerous perversion of British justice, the Society contends, and will be seen as such by the rest of the world.

8. The clauses mentioned, the Society believes, are designed purely to penalise publishers who have quite legally chosen not to join a state-sponsored regulator and are an affront to British justice and fair play as well as the obvious threat to essential journalistic practices which underpin our democracy.

9. Such actions would be seen by those in other countries as a green light to continue emasculating their own media. The UK would lose its preeminent position as a beacon of light for peoples around the world living under regimes who deny press freedoms through many means including spurious legal devices.

10. The Society would contend that the industry has shown it is more than willing to adhere to the general principles set out by the Leveson Inquiry with the creation of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) to which the vast majority of national and regional titles - over 2,600 print and online titles - now belong. IPSO provides low-cost arbitration and access to justice routes are available, including ICO funding for data protection court proceedings against the media and conditional fee agreements. There is no ‘access to justice’ problem to justify the clause 168 costs sanctions. Initially, editors seek to resolve complaints directly or via IPSO, without any cost to complainants.

11. In accordance with the Leveson recommendations, IPSO not only upholds the Editors’ Code of Practice, adjudicates complaints, orders corrections and upholds standards with powers to fine up to £1 million but it provides a low-cost arbitration scheme, under which no claimant would normally pay more than £100 for making and pursuing a legal claim to determination. The IPSO arbitration scheme covers data protection claims.

12. Proposals under clause 142 to create a new public enquiry into the media are an obvious device to engage news operations across the broad spectrum of the media industry in a costly and drawn-out spectacle that would distract from the valuable work carried out by those organisations and swallow-up millions of pounds of scarce public funds with the dubious aim in some quarters, we would contend, of leading to further recommendations for restrictions on the media. The public have shown no appetite for such an enquiry – as shown by the research leading to the recent announcement of the scrapping of Leveson 2 – and would not, the Society believes, welcome so much time and treasure being wasted.

13. The Society urges the government to uphold the standards of press freedom in the UK by striking out those clauses in the Data Protection Bill that will emasculate a free press, restrict investigative journalism and threaten the continued existence of many titles.

Ian Murray
Executive Director
Society of Editors

March 2018

 

Prepared 16th March 2018