Amendments to Data Protection Bill put free press in jeopardy

Index on Censorship urges MPs to reject amendments to the Data Protection Bill that could damage a free press.

08 May 2018

Index on Censorship is pleased to hear the amendments to the Data Protection Bill are likely not going ahead. One of the amendments, which was not voted on, would have left many newspapers having to pay both sides’ costs in a legal dispute – even if the media outlet won. This amendment had serious consequences for a free press, a cornerstone of democracy

On Wednesday, the UK’s House of Commons will vote on the Data Protection Bill: a bill to regulate the way in which personal information is processed.

It is of course critical that we have robust protections over our personal data. Yet, as is so often the case with new laws, Index on Censorship believes we are in grave danger of ushering in one protection only to eliminate another: in this case, the protections afforded to and by a free press.

This is because members of both the House of Lords and Commons have sought to introduce amendments to this bill that would reintroduce into law restrictions on the press that the current government has rightly said it will not implement, namely forcing any publisher who refuses to sign up to a state-approved regulator to pay the legal costs of any data protection case brought against them, even if they win.

Such a measure would, in effect, invite anyone seeking to prevent exposure in the press – including those cases in which exposure, such as the Windrush scandal or MPs expenses, is in the public interest – to threaten legal action to silence a potential publisher. We urge MPs to reject these amendments.

In earlier proposed amendments, any organisation – including non-profit organisations like Index on Censorship – which refused to sign up to a state-approved regulator would have been liable to pay both sides’ costs. The latest amendments on the question of cost-shifting attempts to close that loophole by exempting small publishers but this just makes a mockery of the entire endeavour: either the rules apply to everyone or no one. The ability to hold power to account and expose the corrupt should not be left to one kind of media organisation.

Index does not believe any media organisation should be forced to sign up to a regulator – especially one that has state approval, no matter how arm’s length.

Of course, there should be protections for those wronged by the press: but the threat of financial penalties on potential public interest journalism is not the way to do it. Far better is to encourage low-cost, easily accessible and swift redress for all.

Index does not believe any media organisation should be forced to sign up to a regulator – especially one that has state approval, no matter how arm’s length.

For the past five decades, we have monitored state interference in news reporting, from authoritarian Chile in the 1970s to North Korea today. With a history of scrutinising government pressure on media, we were never going to join Impress (currently the only state-approved regulator).

A free press is fundamental to democracy. Investigative and campaigning journalists have exposed scandals that have helped save lives: such as the work done by Index on Censorship’s patron, Sir Harold Evans, on the Thalidomide scandal while editor of the Sunday Times.

More recently, work by journalist Carole Cadwalladr at The Observer broke the Cambridge Analytica story wide open, while Amelia Gentleman’s reporting at The Guardian has driven the story on Windrush.

Without an environment in which such journalists are encouraged to report – without the fear that they might face costly court cases even for reporting stories that are true – who will hold the corrupt to account?

“It is easy to dismiss such concerns as the hysterical whinging of the mainstream media,” said Index on Censorship chief executive Jodie Ginsberg. “That would be a huge mistake. A genuinely free press – one in which both independent investigative journalist outfits and mainstream media organisations can operate – benefits everyone.”

We crush media freedom at our peril. The democratic gains being eroded in Turkey, Russia, Poland and Hungary and elsewhere have all been accompanied by a loss of press freedom: a freedom that is hard won but easily lost.

A version of this statement was first published on the Independent website.

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One response to “Amendments to Data Protection Bill put free press in jeopardy”

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    Freedom of expression is being stifled in every way possible by the powers that be. On the pretext of data protection, UK and Indian rulers are passing draconian laws. Journalists and writers are being put being bars. Press is being gagged. These are dangerous times and unless resisted, justice may not be served to the number of people who are innocent and vulnerable sections