Mosley Data Protection Challenge Highlights Press Freedom Threat

Publishers would be forced to pay full costs of data protection claims – such as that threatened against several national newspaper publishers by Max Mosley – whether or not they successfully defend the action in court, if anti-press clauses in the Data Protection Bill are not overturned in the House of Commons.

The Times reported this morning that Mr Mosley has launched a legal bid under the data protection regime to force newspapers including The Times to stop publishing widely reported details about him, and matters which his lawyers specify as inaccuracies concerning IMPRESS. The Daily Mail and The Sun have also reported the legal claims brought against them.

The leader in The Times explains: “The Data Protection Act 1998 was passed by parliament to protect personal data from misuse … It was not passed to muzzle the press. The act is nonetheless being used by lawyers for the privacy campaigner and former Formula One boss Max Mosley to do just that.

“They have written to newspapers including this one demanding that they stop publishing new stories, and purge their online archives of old ones, on two subjects. Those subjects are a tabloid sting in 2008 that led to a court case that Mr Mosley won, and his subsequent decision to financially back the government’s preferred press regulator, Impress.

“Enlisting a law never intended for the purpose to try to prevent reporting on past public court proceedings or present debate on press regulation is another matter. It is an attack on press freedom generally and on the freedom of the press to express opinions in particular. Both are hard won, easily eroded and central to the functioning of a free society.”

Columnist Stephen Glover, writing in the Daily Mail, says: “Let’s imagine the potential effects of his prohibitions if the seemingly lawful but morally questionable activities of institutions and individuals were censored as Mosley proposes.

“Would the media be free to write about the repugnant activities of senior Oxfam employees? Very possibly not. For the miscreants could argue that what they did took place in their free time with consensual prostitutes. Unless the women involved were under age, no law was broken. And yet most people are rightly shocked that prostitutes were taken advantage of by older and richer men who should have known better.”

He cited recent and past revelations about Harvey Weinstein and John Profumo as examples of press coverage could have been quashed under such censorship. “Dodgy politicians, crooked policemen, doctors who have affairs with their patients, dishonest businessman — all of them would breathe a sigh of relief if they believed their private malefactions might never come to light.”

As amended by the House of Lords, the Data Protection Bill now contains a Section 40-style costs sanctions clause for data protection actions which would make local and national newspaper and magazine publishers and news agencies liable for all of a claimant’s legal costs for a court action brought against them, regardless of whether or not the claim was found to have any merit by the courts.

The Bill is now before the House of Commons where the Prime Minister and Culture Secretary have said the Government would seek to overturn the House of Lords amendments. As they recognise, they would have a profoundly chilling effect upon journalism.

Writing in the Yorkshire Post, Johnston Press chief executive Ashley Highfield said: “Elected MPs, even if they’ve been on the wrong end of tough scrutiny from their local paper, need to stand up for a free press and local democracy. If they agree that their constituents must have the opportunity to hold them accountable through free and fair reporting – they must overturn the vote in the Lords.

“Because if this reckless act is not overturned, many papers will not be around to serve local communities at all.”

Another clause in the Bill would bring into force a wide-ranging data protection Leveson 2-style statutory enquiry into the broadcast, online and print media industry which would cost the taxpayer millions of pounds, disrupt the industry at a time when it is addressing other serious challenges to its business model, and could result in recommendations repressive of freedom of speech. 

The Times reported that Mr Mosley is now seeking to ban newspapers from alleging inaccurately that he personally funds or can exert influence over IMPRESS.  On its website, IMPRESS states that it has an agreement with the Independent Press Regulation Trust – whose funding has been guaranteed by the Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust – for £3.8 million in funding over the next four years.