This week the House of Commons will be voting on the Data Protection Bill, and attempts by some MPs to force part two of the Leveson Inquiry which was set up by David Cameron’s government seven years ago following the phone hacking scandal.
Part one covered press ethics and the regulatory regime, while part two was meant to consider improper conduct by newspapers and the police, but was delayed pending criminal proceedings.
The Government has decided not to proceed with part two, on the grounds that the terms of reference for a part two of the inquiry have largely been met, with extensive reforms to policing and significant changes to press self-regulation. MPs have received briefings from members of the public who faced appalling treatment by the press, including serious breaches of their privacy, when they themselves were victims of tragedies, such as when they had faced a bereavement which became national news. These stories were a reminder why Leveson was set up, and how badly elements of the press behaved at the time. Since then, 95 per cent of the national press have subscribed to a new self-regulating standards body – IPSO – which has attempted to apply more teeth when stories have been false, with prominent apologies appearing for the first time.
The Government has also pointed out that the media landscape is changing dramatically, with declining newspaper circulation and a rapid rise in social media. With it the problems and the focus of debate are changing. There is now much more concern about the ability of social media to generate fake news, to promote hate and even criminal activity, and to damage young people’s mental health.
With local newspapers under great financial pressure, there has been huge concern that one provision recommended by Leveson would impose disproportionate risk and expense on them. If enacted, it would force media organisations to become members of a flawed regulatory system or risk having to pay the legal costs of both sides in libel and privacy cases, even if they win.
So the Conservative Party’s manifesto pledged to repeal this provision. The Lords not only want to enforce it but to go further. Yet their proposal would risk newspaper publishers having to pay both sides’ legal costs even when a story was justified. Clearly the Lords and others have been concerned for the victims of press wrongdoing. But I believe we need to be very careful of doing an even greater wrong – creating a chilling effect in reporting, damaging our local newspapers, or regulating the press by the State.
We need a responsible media, but its freedom is the essence of our liberty and our democracy. We regulate it at our peril.
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