Regional Lobby Chairman Hits Out At Inquiry Proposals

Conducting a Leveson 2-style inquiry into data protection issues in the media would be “to look for cobwebs while Rome burns in front of our eyes,” the chairman of the regional press lobby in Westminster has said. 

In his submission to the Data Protection Bill Committee Patrick Daly, chairman of the Newspaper Conference which represents Westminster-based regional press journalists, has said that an inquiry would be an expensive misstep when the country faces much more pressing issues.

“When 200 local newspapers have closed since 2005 and online giants such as Facebook are swallowing up the vast majority of digital advertising revenue, the local press needs support to survive rather than spending valuable time and money trying to uncover skeletons that, in all likelihood, do not exist.

“In a time of fake news and untrustworthy online sources, the public need a vibrant regional media with its well-founded reputation. To conduct a Leveson 2-style enquiry now would be to look for cobwebs while Rome burns in front of our eyes.

“Since talk of Leveson 2 resurfaced, I have already personally experienced abuse on social media from an individual who objected to my fair, accurate and well-sourced reporting on his activities while working in public office.

“He threatened me with Leveson 2 and cited my story as one of the reasons it should proceed. In my view, the idea of Leveson 2 is being weaponised by those who want to curb free speech and censor legitimate reporting, and this would only get worse if such an enquiry were commenced.

The Committee narrowly voted to remove the clauses relating to the Section 40-style clauses from the Bill and a major enquiry into data protection issues in the media this week but the Labour Party immediately pledged to reintroduce them at a later stage in the Bill’s passage.

Patrick also warned of the dangers for political reporting of the Section 40-style clause which would see newspapers who refused to sign up to a state-backed regulator forced to pay the legal costs of data protection claimants, even if the paper won the case.

Patrick added: “We are protected when covering politicians’ comments in Parliament thanks to the guarantees of absolute privilege. But if clause 168 were enacted, politicians could not expect even those protected words to be reported so freely. Unwelcome fact or critical opinion about anyone alive could leave our reports of their speeches open to legal attack, seriously jeopardising the future of the industry.

“When I trained to be a journalist, the importance of the Editors’ Code of Practice – which was praised by Lord Leveson in his original report and upheld by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) – was stressed to us as fundamental to our everyday work. It is treated as a Bible by journalists.

“My first editor handed out copies to all reporters, ordering for them to be either permanently on our desks or to be carried with us at all times. When in doubt, we were told to check what the code said.

“What is not covered by the Editors’ Code of Practice or by IPSO is presided over by law – as seen in the phone hacking trials – and so there is no need for an extra layer of bureaucracy or state interference to regulate the press (as laid out in the Royal Charter).

“In the Leveson Inquiry, local press was praised for how it conducted itself – but yet, in this second round of scrutiny and with the overhanging threat of Section 40, it is regional daily newspapers and online outlets that are most in danger of being bankrupted.”

In his evidence, Tony Jaffa, partner, head of editorial and regulatory media, Foot Anstey LLP, said the Section 40-style amendment would be “contrary to the public interest.”

“Lawyers who generally represent claimants have freely admitted that in consequence, they now tend to look to data protection law as an easier way to seek compensation for their clients for perceived publishing wrongs, in place of libel,” it added.  

The Foot Anstey submission stressed that MPs had been “absolutely right to highlight the threat to the existence of certain publishers created by the prospect of liability to pay two sets of legal costs.”

“We believe that the enactment of clause 168(3) of the Bill would likely be extremely damaging both to the UK news industry, and to the ability of our fellow citizens to access national and local news and information. In short, we believe the enactment of clause 168(3) would be contrary to the public interest.”