News, Culture & Society

‘Chilling’ vote on Press freedom to be held today

Proposals which could let criminals, rogue business leaders and corrupt politicians escape being exposed will be voted on in the House of Lords today.

In a fresh assault on Press freedom, peers have tabled a raft of ‘chilling’ amendments to the Data Protection Bill passing through Parliament.

Changes would make it easier for the rich and powerful to avoid being held to account by making it more difficult to carry out investigative journalism and protect the identity of sources who reveal wrongdoing.

Some of the amendments are aimed only at newspapers, but others would affect every media outlet, from national newspapers and broadcasters including the BBC to small community newspapers, charities and think-tanks.

Proposals which could let criminals, rogue business leaders and corrupt politicians escape being exposed will be voted on in the House of Lords today (file photo) 

Crucially, the latest moves threaten 300 years of Press freedom by undermining the principle that journalists have the right to print whatever information they believe is in the public interest, and only answer for it to the courts afterward.

The Bill aims to deliver a 21st century data protection regime. It would strengthen rights and empower individuals to have more control over their personal information, while slapping heavy fines on organisations that did not protect sensitive data.

Significantly, as proposed by ministers the legislation provides an exemption for journalists who access and store personal information without consent when reporting news in the public interest.

But the amendments would make it easier for individuals to find out what information journalists hold about them – and prevent it being used before any article has even been published.

The changes would only exempt material ‘necessary’ for publication – not material compiled as part of a probe but never used.

That would mean criminal masterminds, terror suspects, paedophiles, rogue business bosses and philandering MPs could stifle stories.

A second amendment would strip out freedom of expression safeguards, and could see the public interest in investigating wrong-doing being trumped by an individual’s right to privacy – a further obstacle to publishing reports the public have a right to read. Critics also fear amendments are being used as a ‘backdoor route’ to force publishers to join state-approved regulator Impress, which depends on money from the former Formula One boss Max Mosley.

Under the existing Bill, as proposed by the Government, the exemption for journalists depends on whether their reporting is in the public interest, as defined by the Ofcom code, the BBC editorial guidelines or the Editors’ Code of Practice of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso).

Almost all national and local newspapers, including the Daily Mail, are members of Ipso, which is entirely free of state control and is recognised in other pieces of legislation, including the existing Data Protection Act. But some peers want to remove Ipso from the legislation and replace it with Impress, which covers only a handful of hyper-local publications and blogs.

This would make it impossible for the newspapers read by most members of the public to claim full journalistic exemption.

Mr Mosley, who has handed millions to the controversial regulator, has been a vocal supporter of more restrictive regulation on the Press since being exposed by the News of the World for taking part in an S&M orgy with prostitutes.

A further Labour amendment to the Bill would mean that the Information Commissioner would have powers to decide whether codes of conduct under which journalists work should be recognised by the new law – therefore allowing the state the power to interfere in the Press.

Peers will also try to rewrite the new law so that a second half of the Leveson inquiry into Press standards would go ahead, potentially binding journalists.

And another amendment would force publishers, however large or small, to pay all the costs of data protection claims – their own and their accusers – even if a court had vindicated their investigation and reporting.

The amendments would have hampered probes by the Daily Mail. These include the long-running campaign to convict the murderers of Stephen Lawrence, our exposure of how BBC TV licence fee collectors were bullying families and how charity fundraisers were hounding pensioners for donations.