One of the tactics of dictatorial regimes is to have punitive damages levied on newspapers that do not do what they want—a system whereby if a paper loses a libel action, it is effectively closed down.
“Why do such regimes do that? “They do it so that they can have the pretence of freedom of speech, but with the reality of control.”
Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg’s comments came during a Commons debate on the Data Protection Bill. Proposed amendments to the bill made by the House of Lords which would mean any newspaper winning a libel case would have to pay both its own costs – and those of the person who complained against them.
“In the 18th and 19th centuries here, libel laws were used to prevent the press from exercising the freedom that we think of as a constitutional birth right.
“We see that being restored in clauses 168 and 169, with the outrageous, monstrous idea that if a paper prints something that is entirely accurate—every dot and comma is true—but has not bended the knee to officialdom, the fine will be to pay its own costs and the costs of the party about whom it has told the truth.
“If we do not have free speech, how will we expose corrupt Governments, incompetent politicians and—I dare say there are some occasionally—Governments who make mistakes? Councils that get things wrong, errors that are made and dishonesties that are performed, how will they be reported if every one of us can shut down our local newspaper just by saying that we will go to court and the newspaper will have double costs?”
Mr Rees-Mogg’s comments came at the end of a lengthy debate which began with questions on retaining data.
Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane) (Con): I welcome the element of the Bill about the right to be forgotten. I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee is carrying out an inquiry into fake news, during which this whole issue of data—who owns it, who holds it and who knows what about whom—has come under the spotlight. Can he say how the Bill might help to control that?
Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire) (Con): Will the provisions apply to Wikipedia as well?
Matt Hancock (Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport): Under the Bill, data must be deleted unless there are legitimate grounds for retaining it. The details of what is meant by legitimate grounds will be set out in recitals and then guidance from the Information Commissioner. This is one area in which the right to be forgotten, which has been long dreamt of and thought about, is now being legislated for, and the precise details of where it applies will be set out in guidance, as the Bill states only that there need to be legitimate grounds for retaining data.
Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): Can we be certain that this right to be forgotten will not impede freedom of speech? I am thinking of Max Mosley, of course, and the information that came out as to what he said in 1961, which is relevant and pertinent to current debates. We should do nothing that limits the right of a free press.
Matt Hancock: I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend about not limiting the rights of the free press. He might be aware of amendments that were made in the other place on exactly that issue and which are supported by a number of Members of this House, including, notably, some who are also supported by Max Mosley. I think that we should remove those two provisions. The ability of our press properly to scrutinise is important and should not be undermined in the ways proposed, but I will come to that in more detail later….
…We also want to support the hard-hitting investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account, and that we have touched on already…
the amendments are simply not the answer to today’s problems faced by the media. It has been six years since the Leveson inquiry reported; since then, we have seen the completion of three detailed police investigations, extensive reforms to police practices, and some of the most significant changes to press self-regulation in recent times. Meanwhile, the media are facing critical challenges that threaten their sustainability, including fake news, declining circulations and in gaining revenue from online content.
Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Failure to proceed with part two of Leveson and section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 is a disgusting and cowardly betrayal of the victims of media harassment. It does not even leave those victims in the same position as before, because since Leveson the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 has hobbled the ability of claimants in privacy and defamation actions to access no-win, no-fee representation. Therefore, section 40 is now the only way to ensure access to justice, which is as helpful to small publishers as it is to citizens. Why does the Secretary of State not put their interests before those of big newspaper groups, instead of currying favour for himself and his weak Government?
Matt Hancock: We debated this at length on Thursday, and discussed the fact that it is vital that we look to what is needed for the media now, to ensure that instead of having a set of proposals that were designed several years ago and that would lead to any claimant being able to claim costs no matter the merits of their case, we have measures that enable our press to be sustainable for the future.
John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I support the Secretary of State in proposing that these amendments be removed. Like many in this place, I have been on the wrong end of fake news and misrepresentation many times, so I do not do so out of personal interest. I think there is a wider public interest: a free press is an extremely important part of a democracy. They will not always get it right, but we need to be very careful about the amendments from the Lords.
Tom Watson, Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (West Bromwich East) (Lab): I should start by reassuring the Minister that Labour will not be opposing this Bill on Second Reading. It is an important piece of legislation, and parts of it absolutely have to be incorporated into domestic law by May this year, and we do not intend to stand in its way.
But that is not to say that we are content with the Bill as it is. Many improvements have been made in the other place—many with cross-party support, and some, which I will discuss in more detail, against the wishes of the Government—but there are more changes that we need to make, and the Opposition will be pressing for them as the Bill proceeds through its Commons stages….
We can decide whether to keep the promises made by David Cameron—and by all parties—to the victims of phone hacking and other press abuse in 2012, or to break them.
Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 legislates for the part of the Leveson system that would provide access to justice for ordinary citizens while offering protection to journalists and newspapers that signed up to any Leveson-compliant self-regulatory body. I want to take on one argument that I think is a complete red herring. Some elements of the media do not like IMPRESS —the only self-regulator that has so far been given royal charter recognition. They are, to coin a phrase, unimpressed with it. They would prefer not to be regulated by it, and they pretend that section 40 would force them to be members of it. But that is not accurate. There is absolutely nothing preventing those elements of the press that dislike IMPRESS from setting up an alternative self-regulator and seeking royal charter recognition for it. They could seek recognition for IPSO, but it continues to fall short of the criteria applied by the Press Recognition Panel. The fact that they choose not to do so suggests that IMPRESS is not really the problem. So we will seek to retain the amendment on section 40.
Mr Rees-Mogg: IMPRESS is there, and it has been funded by Max Mosley, who has been exposed as a racist and as someone who indulges in orgies and who has been waging a war against the press. The free press does not want to be regulated by a state-approved regulator. That is fundamental to the freedoms we enjoy in our society. Clauses 168 and 169 effectively impose IMPRESS as the only body that has sought and received royal charter approval, yet it is funded by this deeply unsavoury figure, from whom I believe the hon. Gentleman has now dissociated himself.
Tom Watson: I do not believe that Max Mosley now holds the views ascribed to him. This is what happens when people take on press barons and the billionaires who back them. That is what is going on here. The hon. Gentleman, the Minister and everyone in this House knows that the press barons do not want this regulation. Some years ago, probably before the hon. Gentleman was elected to this House, I remember that MPs were frightened of speaking out about media abuse lest they receive retribution, so I will not take any lessons when people who stand up for media reform see their characters traduced and destroyed in the press.
Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire) (Con) I will start with a little anecdote about my local paper and IPSO. On 9 November, just four days after the Paradise papers story broke, the Hereford Times published the headline, “Tory MP dragged into offshore row”. It clearly implied a connection between me, a law firm I have never had anything to do with, and tax avoidance, which, equally, I have had nothing to do with. To make matters worse, the editor then chose to publish letters the next week from readers who believed that I was part of the Paradise papers. Amazingly, IPSO ruled that that was not misleading or inaccurate in any way. Even though the article contained factual inaccuracies that I had pointed out, IPSO’s complaints committee simply ignored them. IPSO is a press protector, not a press regulator. MPs can speak out against it in the public domain, but normal people have no such voice, so we need this excellent Bill, which I look forward to supporting, largely because of the amendments from Earl Attlee.
Let me describe the Hereford Times a little bit. It is owned by Newsquest, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Gannett Company UK, the UK branch of Gannett Company—a US media giant. In 2015, Newsquest reported a loss of £24,349,000. Meanwhile, Gannett reported revenues of £2.89 billion and a net income of over £146 million. On 11 August 2017, Chris Morley from the National Union of Journalists described Newsquest as “exporting tens of millions of pounds profit to its US masters”.
An amendment put forward by Earl Attlee in the other place adds provisions similar to those in section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. The Secretary of State last week suggested that the current system of press regulation was sufficient, and that implementing section 40 would damage the freedom of the press and hurt vulnerable local papers, but he is wrong on all those counts. In response to the idea that the current system of regulation is sufficient, I point out that IPSO cannot be “largely compliant.” It is not possible to be largely pregnant—someone is either pregnant or not. As per the Secretary of State’s statement, a regulator either follows all 29 criteria or it does not. IPSO does not, and therefore it is not the method of press regulation that Leveson recommended and that has already been passed into law. The Secretary of State suggests that we do not need further regulation. Why would we regulate energy providers, communications providers and even exam providers, but simply decide to trust newspapers that have criminal convictions? That is plainly barmy……
The second accusation is that Earl Attlee’s amendments would damage the freedom of the press. The Press Recognition Panel is entirely independent of Government and the press. It is funded by the Government, but so are the courts, and no one would accuse the judiciary of being influenced by the Government. In addition, the PRP’s charter is as good as unamendable, as amendment requires a 66 supermajority in both Houses and, crucially, the unanimous agreement of the PRP board, so any Government who chose to change press regulation would find it far easier to do so through primary legislation. It is fiction to think the PRP is anything other than independent.
Finally, it has been suggested that Earl Attlee’s amendments would harm local newspapers financially. Section 40 is not about punishing newspapers; it is about creating a fair and low-cost arbitration process that is good for local newspapers and for vulnerable individuals.
Section 40 is not only desirable but necessary. IPSO will never agree to apply to become an approved regulator unless it is forced to, and section 40 would ensure that it happened. I hope we will make sure that this House does not bend the knee to the power of the press barons, but remembers its role to speak up for the vulnerable—the people who have no money, and who need a proper, fair and low-cost arbitration system.
Peter Heaton-Jones (North Devon) (Con): I start by declaring an interest, in that before I became embroiled in the world of politics, I was a journalist for 20 years, although not in the print media—I had the perfect face for radio, so it was the wireless that beckoned. As a former journalist, I take a close interest in two of the matters before us this evening, and I refer to two of the amendments that were made in the other place. I am a bit perturbed as to why we would be dealing with those two specific issues in a data protection Bill, because this Bill seems to be being used somewhat as a Christmas tree, on which all sorts of things can hang, and I am not sure that that is appropriate.
The Secretary of State was right to say in his statement last Thursday that the Government will not be accepting those two amendments. I refer, of course, to that on the implementation of section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which I shall come on to in a moment, and the amendment providing that we should proceed with Leveson 2. I was glad that he announced on Thursday that we would not be going ahead with that, because it is absolutely the right decision, for a number of reasons, not least because the manifesto on which we were elected nine months ago said that we would not be going ahead with it.
Putting politics aside for a little while, let me say that there are a number of reasons why it is it not necessary to go ahead with that. The main one is that the environment has changed dramatically since the first Leveson inquiry. It has changed dramatically since I was last working as a journalist, which was way back in 2006, but even since 2012 and Leveson 1, the landscape has changed dramatically.
Chris Bryant: Rhondda (Lab): That is neither here nor there, because the whole point of the Leveson inquiry was to establish what happened. Hundreds of individuals have had to go through the civil courts to try to establish what happened in their individual case. Many of them now know more than the country does about what happened at that time, but they are unable to say so because they have had to sign confidentiality agreements. The truth of the matter is that we still have never got to the bottom of what level of collusion there was between the Metropolitan Police and the News of the World, and many newspapers have simply lied.
Christine Jardine (Edinburgh West) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman not agree with me, a fellow former journalist, that one of the things that has most undermined the reputation of the media in this country in general has been the behaviour of our newspapers, which have seemed to the public to be beyond regulation? Self-regulation has failed and undermined the image of the media. The Press Complaints Commission failed, as the Press Council did. We had an opportunity to put that right, but it has been lost.
Peter Heaton-Jones: The hon. Lady is right that the Press Complaints Commission did fail, which is why it is rightly no longer there and we now have a new framework….
I do not believe that the answer to the wrongs that still exist in the regulatory regime for newspapers lies in the amendments that have come our way from the other end of the Palace of Westminster. I do not believe that they would do the job that, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire rightly said, the people outside this place want us to do: to make sure that they have a fair right of reply when something wrong is done to them by newspapers….
Many local papers in North Devon have written to me on numerous occasions expressing deep concerns about the impact that section 40 would have. I mention just three: the North Devon Journal, the North Devon Gazette and the South Molton & District News, which is, incidentally, one of the few papers to have signed up to IMPRESS, the new press regulator.
Freedom of the press is absolutely essential in a democracy. Let us think carefully about what section 40 says: if a paper not under the auspices of a Press Recognition Panel regulator is sued for defamation, for instance, it has to pay the legal costs of both sides, even if it wins the case. How can that be sensible? We might argue that that is a pretty blunt instrument with the intention of coercing newspapers to sign up to one of the approved regulators, but 90 per cent of the national press have not done so, so the blunt instrument is clearly not being effective. The biggest danger, however, is that many small, local media companies, such as those in my constituency that I have mentioned, would simply not be able to run a viable business if section 40 were enacted. Financially, the court costs would cripple them. Individuals could make vexatious claims in the knowledge that there was no chance of their ever having to pay costs, whatever the outcome. That is simply something up with which we will not put.
The local press in North Devon and many other parts of the country is still extraordinarily important. The two main papers I mentioned are still read widely today and help to maintain our sense of community. We cannot face a situation in which such papers are threatened by what could be a series of vexatious claims, encouraged by the fact that there would be no risk to the person making that claim.
Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): I was a journalist for 17 years: five with the local press, two with the local media and ending up with 10 years at the BBC. I therefore have an interest in this debate, particularly in the Lords amendments, with which I entirely disagree.
I would like to take the House back to the royal charter. Everyone in the House will remember that all parties agreed at the time that, as a consequence of the phone hacking, there should be a royal charter.
I have always been very concerned when parties on both sides of the House agree with something. It normally means that something is dramatically wrong. Fifteen MPs voted against the royal charter. I and 14 others realised that there was some state control or state implication that would interfere with the free press. We were not happy with that, so we voted against it.
The key point—a point that I have yet to hear from any party on either side of the House—is that phone hacking is illegal. People are not allowed to do it and, as some journalists have found, they go to jail if it is done. Now, I do not want to take away from those who have suffered or the victims of phone hacking, including the royal family, of course. It was simply appalling. As a former—I would like to think—honourable journalist I personally never took part in that activity; nor did I know anyone who did. This is another point: phone hacking was done by a tiny minority of journalists, who were wrong and who caused immense damage to the reputation of the press in this country.
In my very humble opinion, the press in this country is one of the cornerstones of our freedom and democracy. As I have discovered in the short time that I have been here, when we tinker with legislation it is all too often a huge sledgehammer to crack a nut. Those who are introducing legislation and those who are debating it often do not think about the consequences of it. What would happen if we started to impede and encroach on the freedom of the press? The press understandably reacted with anger, claiming that the royal charter would destroy local papers who simply could not afford it.
I have been the victim of some pretty interesting press reporting. I confess that I have been trying to put some solar panels on my land. I remember that one columnist in the Daily Mail wrote a double-page spread that was inaccurate. Having read it, I felt as if I had almost murdered someone. I was somehow this appalling landowner who wanted to do these appalling things. I had imposed my will on my tenants, crushed debate and all these things, but none of it was true. In fact, the opposite had been true and always is in that case. To be fair, the paper did ask me for a comment but I knew that, were I to comment, it would be a small piece at the bottom right of the article, and that the other two and a half, three or four columns would all be anti-Drax. But I can live with that because I want a free press in this country. I want a free press to hold us, businesses and powerful people—yes, like Mr Mosley—to account. If I were in the wrong, the press would have a right to dig out of me what I had done wrong, even though I might not want them to do so.
John Grogan (Lab. Keighley): Investigative journalism is one of the things that makes me proud to be British. When I was previously an MP, I was lucky enough to be vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary National Union of Journalists group. At that time, the group had only two other officers that I can remember: my right hon. Friends the Members for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). Obviously, their careers have taken a different path from my own, but I am still proud to be vice-chair of that group, and I think it is right that I should be.
Obviously, the press get many things wrong, but they also get some things right. There have been many investigations, including the Daily Mail investigation into the Stephen Lawrence affair.
The Daily Telegraph has held politicians to account on both sides of the Atlantic; at the moment, it is exposing the possibility that President Trump was financed by foreign contributions. It has also exposed football corruption. Thank goodness for The Guardian exposing tax cheats and tax avoidance, and thank goodness for the Daily Mirror exposing some of the activities of the tech giants and the more unjustifiable practices of the gig economy. That investigative journalism does not come cheap, however, and I believe that it would be threatened by putting section 40 into law. I have studied the Labour party manifesto very carefully; it is my bedside reading. We are committed to Leveson 2, but I do not think that there is anything in the manifesto that commits us to the implementation of section 40.
Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): I find myself in a great deal of agreement with the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan), who has put the case for press freedom extremely clearly. I begin by making an essentially ancestral declaration of interest: my father was involved with newspapers for most of his professional life, and I have received in comparison very modest payments from some newspapers for some works that I have provided for them over my time in Parliament.
At the heart of this Bill are three clauses—primarily clauses 168 and 169—that came in from the other place and fundamentally attack the freedom of the press. There is widespread agreement on the need to regulate the digital economy and the ownership of data effectively. There is cross-party agreement on that, and I doubt that there will be a Division this evening. However, the freedom of the press and freedom of speech are absolutely at the heart of our democracy. Members of Parliament should remember that those freedoms will be exercised in a way that does not always provide hagiographies for us. Quite understandably, newspapers will say critical things of people on the Government Benches and of people on the Opposition Benches. Sometimes they will be fair; sometimes they will be unfair. Sometimes we will read something and think that we have made a mistake; sometimes we will read it and know that the newspaper has made a mistake. That is the flotsam and jetsam of political life. For every piece in the Daily Mail that upsets Opposition Members, there will be something in the Daily Mirror or The Guardian that upsets us. That is how political life works, and we surely are not sufficiently of the snowflake generation that we should mind about that. That is how political life must and should go.
When we look at clauses 168 and 169, however, we know from our history that one of the tactics of dictatorial regimes is to have to punitive damages levied on newspapers that do not do what they want—a system whereby if a paper loses a libel action, it is effectively closed down. Why do such regimes do that? They do it so that they can have the pretence of freedom of speech, but with the reality of control. In the 18th and 19th centuries here, libel laws were used to prevent the press from exercising the freedom that we think of as a constitutional birth right. We know that the Americans, when writing the bill of rights to their constitution, made the second amendment a clear statement of freedom of speech. Why? It was in response to the abuses that they thought were taking place in the United Kingdom at that point. They put it in because they were worried about such things as the persecution of John Wilkes and his being sentenced to prison not for what he did, but for what he said. We see that being restored in clauses 168 and 169, with the outrageous, monstrous idea that if a paper prints something that is entirely accurate—every dot and comma is true—but has not bended the knee to officialdom, the fine will be to pay its own costs and the costs of the party about whom it has told the truth.
The hon. Member for Keighley referred to the Daily Mail and the Lawrence affair. That terrifying right-wing newspaper, which I read every day and enjoy, exposed the murderers of Stephen Lawrence in a way that required it to say things about the murderers that, until double jeopardy laws were changed, could never be proved in a court. What if this law had existed then and those people, whom we now know were guilty of murder, had sued the Daily Mail for saying something that was true? What if the Daily Mail had had to pay the costs of murderers? That is what their noble lordships have put into this Bill.
This is more serious on a day-to-day basis than the worst case that I can think of. We know the weakness of our local papers and how they struggle hand to mouth, but how easy would it be, for example, for my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) to take to court the journal that he does not like because it said things about him that inaccurate? It is fair enough for him not to like them, but if an hon. Member took a local paper to court, that local paper would be insolvent, because many of them do not have powerful parents behind them. Many of them—I am thinking of some in my constituency—are run by entrepreneurial individuals trying to make a reasonable living. The threat of having to pay double costs would be sufficient to stop them printing a disagreeable story about us.
That is great. It means that in all Conservative seats, no disagreeable things will be published about Conservatives; and in all Labour seats, the same will be true. Therefore I will remain the representative of North East Somerset forever and ever—amen, amen, alleluia—and the hon. Member for Keighley remains in Keighley likewise. As it happens, we both think that is fundamentally wrong and an attack on democracy.
Free speech is not there so that Rupert Murdoch, a man I greatly admire, can make a great deal of money; it is not there so that the noble Lord Rothermere can, likewise, make a decent living; it is there because it is the pillar of democracy. If we do not have free speech, how will we expose corrupt Governments, incompetent politicians and—I dare say there are some occasionally—Governments who make mistakes? Councils that get things wrong, errors that are made and dishonesties that are performed, how will they be reported if every one of us can shut down our local newspaper just by saying that we will go to court and the newspaper will have double costs?
The proponents of clauses 168 and 169 will say, “That’s all very well, but there is IMPRESS.” What is the fundamental principle that has prevented newspapers from signing up to IMPRESS? I was one of 13 MPs who voted against the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which allowed this to happen, and I was absolutely right to do so. The principle is that a free press is one that cannot be regulated by the state, and an application to be approved by a regulator approved by a royal charter is regulation by the state. That is not comparable to the judges or other independent organs of the state, because the judges are part of the state—they are simply independent from this place and from the Executive. The whole point of the press is that it is not in any way part of the state. Quite understandably, no serious newspaper of the left or of the right has been willing to bend the knee to IMPRESS, and nor should it…..
We are suggesting, under clauses 168 and 169, that that most precious thing that underpins, protects and gives us our democracy should be sacrificed to the honour of a man who has waged a campaign against freedom of the press because it exposed his perversions. That is the long and short of it. The hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson), the deputy leader of the Labour party and shadow Secretary of State, said that Mr Mosley does not hold those views any more—well, how gracious of him. But how fortunate we are that our free press has exposed those views, so that we know them in the context of the debate we are having today. I say to Opposition Members that any of them who go through the Lobby at a later stage to vote in favour of those clauses are voting to support Max Mosley, his abhorrent views and his money. Those of us who believe in freedom will vote them down.
Data Protection Bill [Lords] March 5th accordingly read a Second time. The Bill now goes to a Public Bill Committee where proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Tuesday 27 March 2018.
(Ediotor’s note: This is a précis of the debate on the Bill which started at 6.18pm and went on beyond 9.52pm.)
Further reading: “Press regulation proposals owe more to Monty Python’s Piranha Brothers and their Other Other Operation”. News From Crystal Palace writes to culture minister Karen Bradley over section 40 proposals. November 4th 2016