MPs Stand Up For Press Freedom in Key Commons Vote

MPs have given their backing to press freedom by rejecting amendments in the Data Protection Bill which united the news media industry in opposition to the dangerous proposals.

In the House of Commons yesterday, an amendment by Ed Miliband MP for a broad sweeping inquiry into the news media was defeated by nine votes and an amendment by Tom Watson MP, deputy leader of the Labour Party, to bring in Section 40-style costs sanctions was not pressed to a vote.  

The News Media Association said: “We are pleased that MPs have today recognised the importance of press freedom to our democracy. Both these amendments, for a sweeping inquiry into all media and the Section 40-style costs sanctions, represented a dangerous threat to press freedom. The industry can now focus upon the important task of ensuring that the business of producing high quality news media journalism has a sustainable and healthy future.”

Speaking against the amendments yesterday, Culture Secretary Matt Hancock pointed to the profound challenges facing the news media industry and the need to urgently address them to ensure news media journalism has a sustainable future.

He said: “The internet has also fundamentally undermined the business model of our printed press. Today’s core challenge is how to ensure a sustainable future for high-quality journalism that can hold the powerful to account. The rise of clickbait, disinformation and fake news is putting our whole democratic discourse at risk.

“This is an urgent problem that is shaking the foundations of democracies worldwide. Liberal democracies such as Britain cannot survive without the fourth estate, and the fourth estate is under threat like never before. These amendments would exacerbate that threat and undermine the work we are doing through the Cairncross review and elsewhere to support sustainable journalism.”

Mr Hancock also announced “a statutory review of media compliance with the new law over the next four years.” He added: “Alongside that review, we propose to have a named person review the standards of the press in Northern Ireland, and we will take that forward as part of and alongside new clause 23.”

In the debate, John Whittingdale MP challenged critics to say where IPSO failed to meet the requirements of the Royal Charter but added that it would never apply for recognition by the Press Recognition Panel because of “an objection in principle on the part of every single newspaper to a Government-imposed system.”

Mr Whittingdale added: “What we do in this debate is being watched around the world. This country is seen as a bastion of freedom and liberty, and a free press is an absolutely essential component of that. I say to those who are proposing these amendments: do not just listen to the newspaper industry, which is, as I say, united against this—that includes The Guardian, despite the efforts of Labour Front Benchers to somehow exclude them.

“Listen to the Index on Censorship, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists—campaigning organisations that are fighting oppression of the press around the world. They say that if this House brings in this kind of measure it would send a terrible signal to those who believe in a free press. I therefore hope that the amendments will be rejected.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg MP said: “The freedom of the press is so overwhelmingly precious that we should preserve it even if sometimes the press upsets us. It is amazing how many people who have had run-ins with the press have suddenly found that they think it should be more tightly regulated. Fascinatingly, the Daily Mail carried out a survey of their lordships House and discovered that more than a third of those who voted to shackle the press had been embarrassed by the press.

“May I therefore pay all the greater tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Andrew Mitchell) for his impressive speech? He has suffered at the hands of the press, yet he recognises that the value of the free press is one of the great jewels in the crown of our constitutional settlement.

“But it is a jewel that has become tarnished because of actions taken by us; in four years, we have fallen in the rank of free nations from 30th to 40th, so that now we are behind Trinidad and Tobago, and, perhaps most insultingly, even below the French in freedom of the press. The clauses before us today should fill us with shame because they go to the heart of what we should believe in, in terms of our liberties, our freedoms and the rule of law.

Peter Heaton-Jones MP added: “The fundamentally worrying thing is that this seeks to make a connection between local media organisations having to join the state regulator and their facing, if they do not, the awful costs that they might have to pay even if they win a court case. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) described that as an incentive, but it is not—it is coercion. It is only an incentive inasmuch as a condemned man on the gallows has an incentive not to stand on the trapdoor.”

The Bill now returns to the House of Lords to be scrutinised by peers. Clauses to bring into force the Section 40-style costs sanctions and kickstart a statutory inquiry into all media were previously inserted into the Bill in the Lords but removed at the Committee stage.