Proposed amendments on the Data Protection Bill would have the power to ratchet up pressure on editors—and make a poor example of the British pressby Rachael Jolley / May 9, 2018 / Leave a comment
When Michelle Tolley from Sparham, Norfolk, was infected with Hepatitis C following a blood transfusion while giving birth in 1987, she turned to her local newspaper, the Eastern Daily Press, for help.
The EDP and other regional papers ran a campaign that uncovered the use of blood-clotting products by the NHS that were made from plasma donated through high-risk sources, such as paid donors in the United States.
The blood factor products had caused people to be infected with diseases including HIV and Hep C.
Last year, Inside Housing magazine won an award from the British Society of Magazine Editors for its reporting around the causes of the Grenfell Tower fire. The magazine launched a “Never Again” campaign calling for changes in housing regulations that would ensure that the appalling tragedy would not be repeated.
Local newspapers and trade magazines constantly report on details and stories that would otherwise go unchallenged and uncovered. Important investigative reporting takes one person’s story and works at digging out more, and then calls for changes to make a difference to people’s lives. When we talk about having “a free press” in the United Kingdom, this is why.
Investigating reporting matters
The cost of detailed reporting is expensive. But it is important. And that’s why cash-strapped editors continue to do it—even as they risk law suits from those that would rather those stories were not told.
Proposed amendments on the Data Protection Bill, discussed in parliament on Wednesday, would have the power to ratchet up pressure on local news organisations that do this kind of work, encouraging them to just give up and focus instead on the easy stuff, forsaking the important work that makes a difference.
Do we want to live in a country where a lawsuit by a big business could force a daily local newspaper to back away from a story because it is just too much of a risk? Do we want to ramp up the chances of that happening?
One aspect of this bill could do just that, forcing, for instance, a regional paper to pay both sides of an enormously expensive lawsuit as a big company tries to force them to stop reporting. These amendments to limit press freedom are being shoe-horned into the Data Protection Bill. It was not designed or envisaged to cover this.
A global threat
We see media all over the world, from the Gambia to the Philippines, under enormous pressure from all angles—from politicians, and from big business—to stop producing journalism that tells uncomfortable truths that governments don’t want to be told, or want to ignore.
We all see newspapers and news websites being forced to join a state-approved regulator. If you do join, you no longer have to pay both sides of the legal bill if someone tries to sue you, regardless of if they win the case (one of the more worrying details of what is being proposed in this bill).
But as a matter of principle, an estimated 85 per cent of UK newspapers, including titles like the Yorkshire Post and the Wolverhampton Express and Star, feel joining a state-approved regulator is a step on the way towards giving the state power over newspapers and what they print.
When Britain takes a step like this it also sends a signal to the world. Dictators everywhere breathe a sigh of relief, as they can wave towards this country when they want to force their media to shut up.
In Malta, the sons of the murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, Paul and Matthew are currently having to fight 34 libel cases that were originally made against their mother. Under Maltese law the cases then roll over against other members of the family and the plaintiffs can seek damages against their estate.
Daphne’s son Paul Caruana Galizia said: “We want to stop the abuse of libel law: magistrates should throw out cases that are obviously vexatious, designed only to harass journalists and restrict freedom of expression.”
In the Philippines, Maria Ressa, CEO of online news site Rappler, receives a constant stream of threats against her. The country’s president promises to revoke her outlet’s news license for publishing critical reporting.
A free press is flawed, yes, and may also make mistakes. This happens, and where necessary legal action can already be taken. But the majority of newspapers, large and small, and news websites in the UK seek to produce reports that inform the public every day.
Introducing these amendments would be just one more step towards forcing local newspapers out of business, and towards having little investigative reporting of vitally important stories in the future.