Attempts to use the Data Protection Bill to punish news outlets that refuse to sign up to state-sponsored regulation are “grossly irresponsible” and must be rejected, Lord Black of Brentwood told the House of Lords this week.
Speaking in a debate on a “profoundly dangerous” series of amendments tabled by Baroness Hollins and Earl Attlee, Lord Black said they were nothing to do with data protection but instead were an attempt “yet again” to force the British press to join the state-sponsored regulator IMPRESS.
“These amendments try to do that by seeking to remove vital journalistic exemptions enshrined in the GDPR from all those who will not, on grounds of principle, be bullied into a system of state-sponsored regulation.
“Other amendments seek to remove the protection for freedom of expression, which has worked very well in the Data Protection Act 1998, to balance convention rights and make privacy in effect a trump card,” said Lord Black, chairman of the News Media Association’s legal, policy and regulatory affairs committee,.
Lord Black continued: “Let us be clear: the amendments would be a body blow to investigative journalism — at a time when, as we have seen in recent days and weeks, it has never been more vital — by giving powerful claimants with something to hide the ammunition to pursue legal claims and shut down legitimate public interest investigations into their activities even before anything is published.
“All UK news operations, none of which will under any circumstances join Impress or any body recognised by the Press Recognition Panel, would find themselves under incessant legal challenge, with a profound impact not just on investigations but on news, features and even the keeping of archives.
“In my view, it is no exaggeration to say that that would overturn the principle that has underpinned free speech in Britain for two centuries: that journalists have the right to publish what they believe to be in the public interest and answer for it after publication — a right upheld by the courts here and all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights.
“The protections which make investigative journalism possible would in effect be enjoyed by only a handful of hyper-local publishers which have signed up to a state-backed regulator. Are the noble Lords in whose names these amendments stand really content to see the future of investigative journalism in this country invested in The Ferret or inside Moray, rather than in the teams from the Observer, the Liverpool Echo, the Scotsman and the many others which over the years have broken story after story in the public interest?”
Lord Lester of Herne Hill spoke about the dangers for investigative journalism posed by the amendments. He said: “Personal data is about private information. I am reliably told that those public figures who wish to keep their private information away from inquiry now, as a matter of course, use data laws to protect publication in newspapers.
“If the correct balance is not struck, the ability of the press to act as a watchdog will be impaired to the detriment of democracy. Investigations, such as those into sex grooming, will become more difficult to publish.”
Responding for the Government, Lord Keen of Elie said the Bill was about data protection not press regulation and the Government was committed to defending the operation of a free press. He said it would be an “extraordinary step” to remove the IPSO Editors’ Code from the Bill.
He added: “Whatever one might think of IPSO, we should recognise that it has more than 2,500 members, including most of the major tabloids and broadsheets. Removing the code from the Bill would therefore remove protections for the vast majority of our press industry and cause significant detriment to what is a free press.
“Fundamentally, these provisions are about protections that journalists should be able to legitimately rely on in going about their important work. We should view these clauses through that lens - as vital protections that give journalists the ability to inform us about the world in which we live and to effectively hold those in power to account.”
The next Lords debate on the Bill will take place on Monday.