Free Speech in Peril
A number of peers have seized on a chance to curb press freedom by meddling with new data protection legislation. They should desist
The House of Lords will debate a series of amendments to the Data Protection Bill today that between them would deal a heavy blow to the freedom of the press.
If passed into law these measures would make it easier for wrongdoers to shut down legitimate investigations into their activities simply by claiming that their rights under data protection laws had been violated. They would hand unwarranted power to the information commissioner, who is a government appointee, and to Impress, a media regulator backed by the state and funded in large part by an avowed en emy of the press.
They would, in some circumstances, force newspapers to pay the costs of lawsuits filed against them even when these actions failed. In addition, they would pave the way for a full-scale public inquiry into data protection breaches by the media, even though such breaches are already punishable by law and such an inquiry has already been held.
The current Data Protection Act was passed in 1998. The reasons that a revised version is now before parliament have little to do with the press and much more to do with the advent of the internet, big data and big tech firms as dominant influences in public and private life.
This sea change in the information environment has brought pressure to bear on the EU from its member states, which for now include Britain, for updated data protection laws.
The impulse is understandable. The internet has transformed the meaning of privacy, which enjoys particular legal status in Germany because of its unique past and which is seen as under renewed threat there since the disclosure of American spying on Angela Merkel, the chancellor, and her ministers.
European concerns about data protection should not, however, be used as a Trojan horse for an assault on British press freedoms. Yet that is what is happening. The Brussels regulations on which the new data protection bill is based include vital exemptions for investigative journalism, which depends on the ability to use private data for the purposes of journalism. These exemptions have long existed in British law. Their inclusion in the EU regulations was fought for by Britain, which should be proud of its historic role as a beacon of free speech in a continent still scarred by the legacy of totalitarianism.
Such exemptions ought not to be eroded. They have enabled The Times to expose the grooming of teenage girls for sex in Rotherham and Rochdale. Likewise they have allowed The Sunday Times to reveal corruption at the heart of Fifa, and Panorama to lay bare fraudulent abuse of the student loans system.
Their lordships should keep this in mind. Criminals and errant politicians minded to misuse the law to launder their reputations might by well-served by the measures being debated today. The British public would not be.
These amendments are also hostile to press freedom because of the bodies they would empower. One amendment would punish newspapers such as The Times for refusing to sign up to be regulated by Impress, even though that organisation is financed largely by the former Formula One boss Max Mosley, whose animus towards the press is well known, and even though effective independent press regulation already exists in the form of the Independent Press Standards Organisation.
Any civilised society accepts that a balance must be struck between freedom of expression embodied by a free press, and the right to privacy. The European Convention on Human Rights enshrines both, as does British law, but there is now a serious danger that the pendulum swings too far towards the latter. Freedom itself will suffer if the House of Lords does not defend it.