MPs Vote Decisively for Press Freedom

MPs have cast a decisive vote for press freedom this week by throwing out amendments to the Investigatory Powers Bill which would have introduced crippling costs sanctions for local and national newspapers.

The Lords amendments to the Bill were rejected for a second time by the House of Commons this week and yesterday Baroness Hollins confirmed that she would drop the amendments, allowing the legislation to complete its passage through Parliament.  

Speaking in the Lords debate yesterday Lord Myners said: “I speak as a former chairman of the Guardian newspaper. Many of the stories that the Guardian has covered, which I believe deeply are to the benefit of its readers and society, may not have been written in the way they were had Section 40 been activated.

“I see what has been written about Sir Philip Green by Oliver Shah in the Sunday Times as an example of journalism that would have been chilled by the impact of this section. This section is a charter for the venomous and the vexatious, the pernicious and the provocative, the scurrilous and the spiteful.

“I am grateful and pleased that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has launched a public consultation so that we can again look at the advisability of applying a presumption in favour of the claimant, which will simply encourage the worst of litigation without achieving the justice that so many in this House seek.”

Speaking in the Commons debate on Tuesday, MPs attacked the costs sanctions as “unjust” and repeatedly stressed that they would threaten the existence of local newspapers.  Sir Edward Garnier MP said: “Why should a well-intentioned and successful defendant publisher have to risk the expense of successfully defending a claim and then having to pay the costs of the unsuccessful claimant? ​That strikes me as unjust. To be sued as a defendant is tedious enough, but to be sued as a defendant, to win, and then to be required to pay the costs of the unmeritorious claim must surely constitute even more of a punishment.”

Damian Collins MP said: “First, I echo what Members have said across the House about the importance of a free press and a press both acting freely and speaking with confidence to the powerful. We ​have seen the role of British investigative journalism in taking on corruption in international sport, where it could without fear or favour pursue its investigations and therefore brought down powerful and mighty people. We do not want that to be jeopardised in any way.

“At the same time we should be conscious that if we just implement the section 40 provisions as they currently stand, some of the biggest victims would be small newspapers and magazines that have never been part of these bigger things. We should also at this time reflect on the nature and purpose of Section 40. That is why I believe the Secretary of State is right to have a further consultation.”

Edward Argar MP said: “A vibrant, responsible local press that is able to speak freely and report stories within the law is a pillar of our democracy. It is something we should be proud of and always strive to protect. What concerns me, and the press, is the potential for the press to have done nothing wrong—having not misreported a story or wronged an individual—and yet to find itself on the receiving end of costs that threaten its existence.​”

Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg said: “This is an absolutely dreadful amendment and it should be thrown out, rejected and sent back to the House of Lords. It is fundamentally wrong. It seeks to punish those who might be innocent and to fine them for telling the truth and for saying things that people in power do not like.

“Whenever we put constraints on the press, we help the powerful to get away with misdeeds. This House should stand up for freedom. It should stand up for liberty and it should reject the unelected House of Lords trying to prevent scandal from being reported freely.”

Richard Drax MP said:  “I am here to defend the press, because the press in this country is one of the cornerstones of our democracy. I do not want IPSO to sign up to the royal charter, which represents state intrusion, not through the back door but quite openly. As I understand it—I hope that I am reporting the facts correctly here—IPSO is considering a system of low-cost arbitration. But what is low-cost arbitration? I suspect that local newspapers and those taking cases against them often employ expensive QCs. How do we cap the cost? I am not quite sure what “low-cost arbitration” means.

“I agree that if a grievance is found to be justified, and the press is found to have got its facts wrong, it has a duty to publish that inaccuracy on its front page and to give it the same prominence as it gave to the original story on its inside pages or perhaps its front page. Any editor worth his salt should drag in the journalist responsible and say, “Enough is enough.” The free press: that is what we are here for and that is what I am fighting for. I totally back the Government in not supporting this Lords amendment.”