Read all about it – the end of the line on press regulation?
Amid the snow and the ongoing furore over the Brexit negotiations, you might have missed it, but speaking in the House of Commons today, Culture Secretary Matt Hancock made things very clear: the Leveson inquiry into the relationships between the newspapers, police and politicians is closed and the second stage will not proceed.
‘We do not believe that reopening this costly and time-consuming public inquiry is the right way forward,’ Hancock told the House, adding that the years since the initial inquiry have seen ‘seismic change’ in the media landscape. He also confirmed that – as committed to in the 2017 Conservative manifesto – the Government would repeal Section 40 of the 2013 Crime and Courts Act, which would have required all newspapers not signed up to an approved regulator to pay their own and their opponents’ legal costs in respect of data protection claims.
Case closed, then? Well, not quite. The Data Protection Bill, the seemingly innocuous piece of legislation designed to convert the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) into British law among other things, will be entering the Commons for its second reading on Monday. Smooth passage is anything but guaranteed, thanks to amendments introduced in the House of Lords.
The first amendment, requiring the Culture Secretary to establish an inquiry into data breaches by news publishers (essentially Leveson 2), was tabled by Baroness Hollins, herself a victim of press intrusion, following the Government’s perceived failure to act on the recommendations of the first Leveson inquiry . Despite opening a consultation into the subject in January 2017, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport failed to publish the review and today’s announcement makes clear the Government has no plans to proceed. The second amendment would require Section 40 to be implemented.
Piling on the Pressure
Today’s developments have hardly come as a surprise. When these amendments passed in the Lords, Hancock vehemently vowed to overturn them, saying they would be a ‘hammer blow’ to local news. Prime Minister Theresa May subsequently affirmed her commitment to maintaining a free press, saying that restarting Leveson would ‘undermine high quality journalism’.
The amendments have plenty of detractors outside the Government too, who consider the plans tantamount to state censorship. Among the critics are hard hitters such as Alastair Campbell; seen here marshalling troops for a fight. He has argued that the proposed tightening of data protection laws is open to abuse by individuals who could bring court cases for spurious reasons and ruin less well funded papers. And given the subject, the Government can, at least this once, count on having the majority of the press (of all political persuasions) on side, not to mention the SNP. Brendan O’Hara, the SNP’s media spokesperson, said in the Commons today that, while all individuals should have the right to redress, the Scottish Government has no plans to force newspapers to sign up to regulators.
The Labour leadership, however, is readying for a fight, and Hancock’s statement may well invigorate them. Jeremy Corbyn threw down the gauntlet last week following newspaper stories digging into his links with the Soviet Union, and released a video warning that ‘change is coming’ for the UK’s media, with a tone that many in the press identified as threatening. Senior figures such as Deputy Leader Tom Watson – currently engaged in a war with the media over his relationship with Impress funder Max Mosley – have confirmed that a Labour Government would enact Leveson 2. Significantly, there was cross-party support for the measure in its original incarnation.
Speaking today in the Commons, Watson said the announcement was conveniently timed to be ‘buried’, and called it a breach of trust and a betrayal of the victims of press intrusion. He added that ‘the Government is formally capitulating’.
Even if the Government is successful in overriding the amendments in the Commons, the Bill must necessarily return to the Lords for further scrutiny, and supportive peers have already threatened to issue further challenge at ping pong stage. With relations between the two Houses fractious due to Brexit, this could set the stage for another showdown, although convention states peers would not vote down a manifesto commitment.
Given her tight parliamentary calendar, May can’t afford to waste time. The Bill must be passed by May for GDPR to come into effect. And even if – as is ultimately likely – the Government avoids defeat on this Bill, the architect of UK press regulation reforms, Sir Oliver Letwin, has warned that peers could be planning ‘trench warfare’ by sneaking similar amendments into other legislation.
Press regulation may be on life support – but it isn’t necessarily dead yet.
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