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Data Protection Bill [HL]

Written evidence submitted by Patrick Daly, chairman of the Newspaper Conference and parliamentary correspondent for the Bristol Post, Hull Daily Mail and Grimsby Telegraph (DPB50)

1. I am writing in my capacity as chairman of the Newspaper Conference – the regional press lobby in Westminster, a small but influential group of political editors and parliamentary correspondents writing for regional press titles across the UK.

2. We cover Westminster politics for daily and weekly regional and local newspapers serving communities across the UK. We scrutinise events in Parliament and Whitehall on behalf of our readers and strive to tell the public what is being done by the politicians they have elected to power.

3. The conference, and we as working journalists, are profoundly concerned by the measures related to press regulation currently being considered by the Committee, namely clauses 168, 169, 205 (2)(b) which were inserted into the Bill by the House of Lords, and we strongly support the Government’s amendments, 50, 60, 61 and 72) to remove them from the Bill.

4. The consequence of Section 40, should it be enacted, is that newspaper editors would be reluctant to run stories with any hint of controversy due to the costly data protection claims it would open newspapers up to. I’ve spent days and sometimes even weeks validating to my editor that my investigations are worth publishing, giving further evidence when needed that the allegations are well-founded – there is already a solid amount of fact-checking that goes on at a local newspaper. To add to the mix the possibility of a legal battle where local newspapers could incur the costs even if we win the case would, in my opinion, cause many editors to spike any story with the hint of controversy – a decision which would ill-serve the communities we write for.

5. We are protected when covering politicians’ comments in Parliament thanks to the guarantees of absolute privilege. But if clause 168 were enacted, politicians could not expect even those protected words to be reported so freely. Unwelcome fact or critical opinion about anyone alive could leave our reports of their speeches open to legal attack, seriously jeopardising the future of the industry. The News Media Association has estimated that Section 40 could cost the regional and local press £48m in legal costs – a figure which would, in all likelihood, put us out of business. Readers and communities would be all the poorer without journalists pressing for answers on the latest planning application, council decision or death of a loved one in the care of a state institution. Not to mention, many hard-working and law abiding journalists would be out of a job.

6. When I trained to be a journalist, the importance of the Editors’ Code of Practice – which was praised by Lord Leveson in his original report and upheld by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) – was stressed to us as fundamental to our everyday work. It is treated as a Bible by journalists. My first editor handed out copies to all reporters, ordering for them to be either permanently on our desks or to be carried with us at all times. When in doubt, we were told to check what the code said.

7. What is not covered by the Editors’ Code of Practice or by IPSO is presided over by law – as seen in the phone hacking trials – and so there is no need for an extra layer of bureaucracy or state interference to regulate the press (as laid out in the Royal Charter). In the Leveson Inquiry, local press was praised for how it conducted itself – but yet, in this second round of scrutiny and with the overhanging threat of Section 40, it is regional daily newspapers and online outlets that are most in danger of being bankrupted.

8. There are still clamours for a Leveson 2-style enquiry to be conducted but we feel that would be a misstep when there are other much larger issues to tackle – not to mention costly, given it is likely to be more expensive than the £49m bill that taxpayers were handed to pay off after the first Leveson Inquiry and resulting investigations. We welcome the Government’s announcement that it will not be proceeding with Leveson 2 and feel that a broad enquiry into data protection issues in the media, as proposed in clause 142 in the Data Protection Bill, would be completely unnecessary. As for the content of Leveson 2, the relationship between the police and local journalists is not an issue in my experience. In fact, many police are barred from even speaking to journalists at their local newspapers – a position that is equally as unhealthy as having too-cosy a relationship. When 200 local newspapers have closed since 2005 and online giants such as Facebook are swallowing up the vast majority of digital advertising revenue, the local press needs support to survive rather than spending valuable time and money trying to uncover skeletons that, in all likelihood, do not exist. In a time of fake news and untrustworthy online sources, the public need a vibrant regional media with its well-founded reputation. To conduct a Leveson 2-style enquiry now would be to look for cobwebs while Rome burns in front of our eyes.

9. Since talk of Leveson 2 resurfaced, I have already personally experienced abuse on social media from an individual who objected to my fair, accurate and well-sourced reporting on his activities while working in public office. He threatened me with Leveson 2 and cited my story as one of the reasons it should proceed. In my view, the idea of Leveson 2 is being weaponised by those who want to curb free speech and censor legitimate reporting, and this would only get worse if such an enquiry were commenced. We strongly support Government amendment 50 to leave out clause 142.

10. On behalf of the regional lobby, I urge the Committee to remove these dangerous clauses from the Bill in order to protect legitimate journalism and the ability of our group to report on behalf of communities across the UK.

March 2018

 

Prepared 22nd March 2018