Rt Hon Michelle Donelan MP
Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
100 Parliament Street
22 September 2022
Dear Secretary of State,
Congratulations on your new role.
We are a coalition of independent organisations committed to protecting freedom of expression. We are writing to you following your appointment as the new Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to request a meeting to discuss the Online Safety Bill. We believe that, in order to prevent serious damage being done to our rights and freedoms, the Online Safety Bill must be completely overhauled.
In particular, we would like to set out concerns we have about provisions in the Bill which we believe would be damaging to the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. We believe that the following areas must be addressed as a minimum:
The law should be upheld online as it is offline, but as currently drafted, the Bill would impose a two-tier system for freedom of expression, with extra restrictions for categories of lawful speech, simply because they appear online. During the Conservative leadership contest, the new Prime Minister Liz Truss committed to protecting freedom of speech in the Bill. She also said that her “fundamental principle is the rules should be the same online as they are in real life”. In its current form, the Bill does not live up to this principle,as it specifically seeks to regulate and restrict categories of free expression which the state labels as “harmful”.
We believe that Clause 13 of the Bill regarding so called “legal but harmful” speech must be dropped.
It has been widely observed that the Bill gives the Secretary of State excessive executive powers to define categories of lawful speech to be regulated and influence the limitations of our online expression. We believe that these powers would be vulnerable to politicisation by a future government.
We believe that executive powers granted to the Secretary of State, including those which would give the post-holder undue influence over communications regulator, Ofcom, must be dropped.
The Bill also poses serious threats to the right to privacy in the UK by creating a new power to compel online intermediaries to use “accredited technologies” to conduct mass scanning and surveillance of all citizens on private messaging channels. These measures also put at risk the underlying encryption that protects private messages against being compromised by bad actors. The right to privacy is deeply entwined with the right to freedom of expression and these proposals risk eroding both, with particularly detrimental effects for journalists, LGBTQ+ people, and other communities.
The Bill must not compel online intermediaries to scan the content of our private messages.
We would welcome the opportunity to discuss these points with you in more detail and would be happy to meet with you virtually or in person at a time of your choosing.
We look forward to hearing from you soon.
Mark Johnson – Big Brother Watch
Barbora Bukovská – ARTICLE 19
Daniel Gorman – English PEN
Sam Grant – Liberty
Dr Monica Horten – Open Rights Group
Jacqueline Rowe – Global Partners Digital
Ruth Smeeth – Index on Censorship
Ofcom’s decision to declare the UK Independence Party a ‘major party’ for the purposes of this month’s European elections has led to questions about who should be allowed to address the public. Behind the scenes, broadcasters have asked why their right to editorial freedom is restricted at all.
UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, responded: “This ruling does not cover the local elections, despite UKIP making a major breakthrough in the county elections last year. This strikes me as wrong.”
Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party – which Ofcom decided was not a major party – pointed out that, unlike UKIP, her party has an MP, and is also “part of the fourth-largest group in the European Parliament”.
Both sides pounced on the Liberal Democrats, whose dwindling position in the polls, they hinted, should see it demoted to minor party status.
The decision means commercial TV channels that show party election broadcasts must allow UKIP the same number of broadcasts as the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. They will also be given equal weight in relevant news and current affairs programming. However, for content focusing on, or broadcasting solely to, Scotland, UKIP’s lower levels of support there mean it will remain a minor player.
This of course gives UKIP a certain level of legitimacy, and the scope to influence even more voters. For those campaigning against them, the move is grossly unfair.
The Green Party in particular feels hard done by. From the House of Lords to local councils it has representatives at every level, but Ofcom still claims it hasn’t achieved enough. Yet in its report the regulator said that it could not make UKIP a major party in Scotland without granting the same status to the Scottish Green Party, due to their comparable performance.
Ofcom has promised to review the list periodically, so things could change in future. But for now it believes the list represents political realities. UKIP’s focus on getting Britain out of Europe has helped it to do well at the past few European elections. In 2009 it came second in terms of vote share, up from third place in 2004, and this year a number of polls indicate that it could win. In more recent local elections UKIP has done well, achieving 19.9 per cent of the total vote in 2013. But this has leapt up from 4.6 per cent in 2009’s local elections, which for Ofcom is not consistent enough to justify extra coverage for its prospective councillors.
So it seems fair enough that UKIP counts as an important party for Britain in the European Parliament. The Greens are yet to win enough votes in enough elections for their inclusion to make sense. And the Liberal Democrats appear to be clinging on only because of their level of support in past general elections, which was also taken into account.
But the real question is why a list is necessary at all. After all a “regulated free press” sounds something like “freedom in moderation” – ultimately a nonsense. Ofcom’s control over which parties receive coverage puts a dampener on broadcasters’ right to freedom of expression and makes it more difficult for newer parties to break through.
Responding to a previous consultation on whether the list of major parties should be reviewed, Channel 4 said the regulator’s rules should “ensure that political messages are conveyed in a democracy… [but] such regulation should be as narrow as possible to restrict… any interference with the broadcaster’s right to editorial independence and its rights to freedom of expression”. Channel 5, meanwhile, said the concept of major parties did not have “continuing relevance at a time of increasing political flux and fragmentation within the electorate”.
Ofcom appears to be prioritising the need of the electorate to be informed. So it could be argued that, for the purposes of allocating party election broadcasts, the list is useful to prevent any channel from steadfastly omitting information on a party that is likely to appear on most voters’ ballot papers.
But in terms of news and current affairs programming, there seems little reason that broadcasters shouldn’t have the freedom to say what they please – particularly because newspapers are faced with no such restrictions.
As the dominance of mass media fades, and the internet provides access to alternative points of view, the restrictions on the news you receive through your TV will only become more obvious.
Jeremy Hunt texted George Osborne shortly before he was handed control of News Corp’s £8 billion bid for full control of BSkyB, telling the chancellor he was “seriously worried” the government would “screw up” the bid.
In evidence disclosed to the Leveson Inquiry this morning, it was also revealed that the embattled culture secretary texted James Murdoch on the same day, congratulating him for receiving approval from the European Commission on the company’s bid.
This text message was sent just hours before the BBC revealed that business secretary Vince Cable — at that point in charge of adjudicating the bid — had told undercover Telegraph reporters he had “declared war” on News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch, remarks that were seen as proof of bias. Cable was later stripped of his responsibility, which was passed over to Hunt and announced by Downing Street at around 6pm on 21 December 2010.
At 12:57pm on 21 December, Hunt texted James Murdoch: “Great and congrats on Brussels. Just Ofcom to go”, shortly after the European Commission’s approval of the bid.
At 2:30pm the BBC published Cable’s comments, which Hunt said were discussed in a phone call with James Murdoch at 4pm.
Eight minutes later Hunt texted Osborne, noting he was “seriously worried we are going to screw this up” regarding the bid. In a second message to the chancellor, he noted that Murdoch was accusing Cable of “acute bias” over the bid.
Osborne later texted Hunt: “I hope you like our solution”, shortly before Downing Street’s announcement that Hunt had been given charge for the bid.
Such revelatory messages place further pressure on Leveson to call the chancellor to give evidence before the Inquiry.
Elsewhere in an intense morning of evidence, Hunt defended his handling of the bid, saying he was .”sympathetic” to it rather than “supportive” of it”, and repeated his defence that he did not feel it presented a “major plurality” issue.
Hunt confirmed he received legal advice in November 2010 urging him that it would be “unwise” to intervene. Yet, explaining a memo he sent to David Cameron in the same month, in which he told the PM that it would be “totally wrong to cave in” to the bid’s opponents, Hunt said he had concerns about a situation “where we had a significant merger in my sector” that was encountering obstacles, adding that he sought to be “absolutely proper” in his approach.
“I had an absolute duty to be across the most important issue in that industry,” Hunt said.
He also defended as “appropriate” his 16 November phone call with James Murdoch, despite having received legal advice to avoid becoming involved in News Corp’s bid. Hunt told the Inquiry he “heard what was on his [Murdoch’s] mind.”
“I probably gave him a sympathetic hearing but I probably said I couldn’t get involved in that decision because I had taken legal advice that I couldn’t,” Hunt said.
A meeting between the two was cancelled the day before, following the legal advice, with Hunt explaining he did not see the telephone call as a replacement. “My interpretation of the advice was that I should not involve myself in a quasi-judicial process that’s being run by another secretary of state [Cable].”
Discussing the high level of contact revealed by the Inquiry last month between Hunt’s former adviser Adam Smith and News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel, Hunt said his department was not prepared for the “barrage” of messages from Michel.
“I doubt there’s a minister who worked more closely with a special adviser than I worked with Adam Smith,” Hunt said, explaining that Smith, who resigned in the wake of the revelations, was aware of his views but this did not mean he spoke for him.
He added that Smith was never given instructions on how to deal with News Corp. He repeatedly referred to the adviser as an “official point of contact” to answer questions on the bid process. He rejected counsel Robert Jay QC’s suggestion that the Michel-Smith contact — which included over 1,000 text messages over the course of the bid — was an “extra layer”.
The Labour party has since upped the volume on its calls for Hunt to resign, arguing he was not the “impartial arbiter” he was required to be.
Hunt has maintained he acted properly and within the ministerial code. David Cameron said last week he did not regret handing the bid to Hunt, stressing he acted “impartially”, but has said he will take action if evidence to the Inquiry suggests Hunt breached the code.
The Inquiry continues with further evidence from Hunt this afternoon.
Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson
BBC’s Persian TV service has faced further intimidation in Iran. It has been reported that relatives of BBC staff in London have been detained and threatened by Iranian intelligence agents; top presenters have been targeted by rumours; and one employee has subjected to an online interrogation in London after a family member in Iran was jailed.
Since its launch in 2009 channel has suffered jamming and deliberate attempts to interfere with its signal. Tensions between Britain and Iran have worsened in recent weeks, with British regulator Ofcom revoking Iranian state broadcaster Press TV’s UK licence last month for breaching the Communications Act.