Taking a bad idea and making it worse

09 May 2018  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Taking a bad idea and making it worse

In planning new measures that will undermine press freedom, the Labour Party is displaying a strange sense of priorities, flowing against the tide of both technology and history, writes Ray Snoddy

We live in horrendous times. President Trump seems intent on further destabilising the Middle East, there is the nightmare of Syria, the almost daily killings in Afghanistan and the problem of Putin.

Domestically, the list of defeats imposed on Government Brexit policy by the House of Lords grows ever longer.

Much more seriously, future trade options for life outside the EU, now at the heart of public Cabinet squabbles, have already been rejected by EU negotiators.

The possibility of leaving the EU without a deal, with obvious economic damage, becomes more likely and one of the early industries to suffer most - the canary in the coal mine - will be the advertising supported media.

At the same time, vast corporate players in the media are gathering their ammunition for a no-holds barred multi-billion dollar fight for the future of Sky, Fox and even Disney by Comcast - a company that is little more than a foreign name to most British civilians. Piggy in the middle - Sky News.

Despite everything - from the spreading of fake news, hate crime, misuse of private data and lack of accountability - the social media march on, eating the lunch and the dinner of the established publishers.

With all of that going on in the world, and many other small tragedies and complex unresolved political issues across a wide front, what is the Labour Party doing?

They plan new measures that will assuredly have the effect of undermining freedom of the press in the information age.

It is, at the very least, a very strange sense of priorities, flowing against the tide of both technology and history.

Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson, who must have the support in this of Jeremy Corbyn, wants to tack on Section 40 style provisions of the Crime and Courts Act to the Data Protection Bill now going through the Commons.

And Ed Miliband, hardly one of the most successful Labour leaders of modern times, is pushing for a Leveson 2 statutory inquiry into the media - not just the press.

One is much more serious and unjustifiable than the other, yet both could sneak into law because of the current peculiar Parliamentary arithmetic.

The bizarre amendment by Tom Watson, who has taken £540,000 from Max Mosley to fund his office, intends to force publishers into the arms of the state-recognised regulator Impress, largely paid for by Mosely family funds.

It takes a bad idea from the previous Section 40 rejected by the Government and makes it noticeably worse.

Watson seeks to discriminate in favour of “good” local publishers with less than £100 million a year revenues and not-for-profit publishers who reinvest any surplus in journalism.

The good guys, and those who sign up for Impress, would be exempt from what many see as draconian provisions that would allow anyone to sue publishers for breach of data provisions and have all their costs paid even if they lose.

With consolidation in the regional newspaper industries, 85 per cent of publications would be caught by the £100 million limit. The entire local newspaper industry is united against such a measure.

As many have pointed out, the only national newspapers to benefit from the not-for-profit protection would be the left-leaning Guardian and Observer.

Is either paper seeking a Watson pass-out from the legislation?

Absolutely not. In a briefing letter sent to MPs Guardian News & Media says Watson’s proposed amendment would “further erode press freedom and have a severe chilling effect.”

The group goes on to reject proposals to exempt media groups from punitive legal costs if they reinvest profits in journalism.

“This clause was not discussed with Guardian News & Media and we disagree with attempts to impose a selective sanction on the media,” the company says.

Media lawyer Mark Stephens, no virgin in these matters who has represented phone hacking victims, has accused a “small and affluent privacy lobby” of trying to hijack data legislation to impose tighter regulations on newspapers.

“Punishing some publishers with cost sanctions when they fight an increasing number of legal battles is taking us back to the Dark Ages,” Stephens argued in a letter to The Times.

A leading QC, Anthony White, in a legal assessment for the News Media Association says the Watson amendment could be illegal under Human Rights legislation and likely to be struck down by the courts.

“It is a fundamental principle of public law that it is unlawful to punish a person who has done nothing wrong,” says White.

Even if the amendment by Watson - who stoked the paedophile hoax against Lord Bramall and Lady Brittan - fails there will be no less shame on those who tried to get it passed.

If it succeeds then the only way forward is for publishers to test the law in the High Court and ultimately in Europe if necessary.

Leveson 2 is a different and more difficult issue. A second inquiry into the details of what went wrong in the phone-hacking scandal was promised after the phone hacking prosecutions were over.

The Government has decided that another £50 million inquiry into the media would both be disproportionate and backward looking - not just costly but hugely time consuming for all concerned.

Self-regulation of the press has moved on and we now at last have a binding system of arbitration agreed to by the major publishers under which the aggrieved can get up to £60,000 in damages for a maximum fee of £100.

Supporters have tried to modernise Leveson 2 by including online - something that Lord Justice Leveson all but ignored in his 2,000-page report.

On balance, Leveson 2 should be quietly interred as in the main it will inevitably be mired in past misdeeds which have now been dealt with, as they always should have been, by law.

For those with an insatiable desire for statutory inquiries into the state of the media then such an inquiry should start from scratch and examine the financial viability of national media in a globalised world and the scale of the threat posed by the tech companies of Silicon Valley, not just to traditional media players but to society and democracy itself.

Anything else would be largely a waste of time and money.

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