Peter Heaton-Jones MP
Working Hard for North Devon
News Update -
Date: 6th May 2018
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Data Protection Bill
This week, a slightly different newsletter, because I want to focus on just one issue.
Next Wednesday, Parliament will be debating the Data Protection Bill. It sounds rather dull, frankly, but in fact the new law will touch pretty much everyone’s lives.
The Bill brings into British law a new set of EU regulations called GDPR, which will take effect from 25 May. If you’ve ever given your personal details – name, address, email – to any organisation, the new rules will change the way your data can be used and stored. And if you run any sort of institution that collects people’s data, you’ll have to abide by a whole new set of regulations. That means whether you’re a multi-national company or you run the local village hall booking system, you’ll almost certainly have to comply.
But as huge as that is, I don’t want to talk about that in this newsletter. I want instead to discuss a couple of other clauses to the Bill which I feel passionate about. I’ve spoken about them several times in parliament already and will be doing so again on Wednesday. They are both amendments which have been attached to the Bill by the House of Lords. I’m fighting to reject them.
My strength of feeling on these issues stems from my own background as a journalist, but I want to explain why we should all be very worried about these proposals, whatever our view of the media.
The first proposed amendment is the idea that we should have a second Leveson Inquiry to look at journalistic ethics and standards. You’ll recall that the first Leveson Inquiry quite rightly examined the terrible behaviour of a handful of newspapers who were involved in phone hacking. It did important work and changed the culture of the print media.
Of course, there are still examples of reporters working for a variety of news organisations who are undertaking practices that are either immoral or illegal, or in some cases both. But establishing Leveson 2 would not change that. It would not even bring the sort of justice that I am sure we all want for members of the public who have been wronged by the media.
Leveson 2 was designed to look specifically at the relationship between the press and the police. But since it was mooted, there have been huge changes. The Leveson 1 inquiry touched on many of the issues that the proposed Leveson 2 inquiry would cover, and we have had any number of reforms in the way the police and media operate. We have had Operations Elveden, Tuleta and Weeting, all of which have investigated a wide range of practices in the interaction between the police and journalists. At a total cost, incidentally, of about £40 million, they have done good work and all of them have resulted in significant improvements. I see no justification for spending another, maybe, £50 million on Leveson 2 which would cover much the same ground and may not even take us any further forward.
When I first joined the journalistic trade, way back in 1986, there was malpractice on a scale that we would not believe. It was completely normal for reporters to pick up the phone to a friendly police contact and get whatever information they wanted to write their next story. I am sure it still happens, but it is now not the norm.
Where malpractice occurs in the media, and where members of the public are treated in the most despicable way by journalists, of course I want people to be able to have the right to redress. But Leveson 2 would not do that.
It is perhaps worth pointing out also that this Government was elected only nine months ago on a manifesto that specifically said that Leveson 2 would not go ahead.
For all these reasons, the government was absolutely right to decide that Leveson 2 should not happen. And the House of Lords is absolutely wrong to try and bring it back on the agenda by amending this Bill on Wednesday. That’s why I will be speaking against it.
I will also be opposing another proposal from the House of Lords, which I think would be a major blow to press freedom in this country. Their Lordships want the government to bring in something called Section 40. This is an amendment to the law which does one key thing: it seeks to force newspapers to sign up to a state-run regulatory body. That’s a bad idea in itself, but what’s worse is the way it tries to ‘persuade’ media organisations to toe the line.
In a nutshell, Section 40 will say that if a newspaper does not join the state regulator, it will be punished by being forced to pay all the legal costs of any court case, even if it wins.
Quite simply, that will encourage a lot of entirely vexatious legal actions to be brought by people who don’t like newspapers printing inconvenient truths about them. These will often be powerful individuals with pockets bulging with cash, which means there’s no risk to them. But when, as will inevitably happen, the newspaper wins the case, it risks being put out of business because it has to pay the legal costs of both sides. To be clear, even if the newspaper is proved to have done absolutely nothing wrong, it would still have to pay a penalty potentially running into millions.
Those who support Section 40 say it will mean reporting becomes fairer and more responsible. But I believe it will be an extraordinarily damaging measure for the future of the freedom of the press in this country. Newspaper proprietors – especially those running small, local publications – could not afford the risk of a court case which could close them down even if they win. So they will stop publishing material which we need to know, and which holds public bodies and individuals to account. That cannot be right.
I will be speaking against both these parts of the Data Protection Bill on Wednesday, and not just because I’m a former journalist. There’s a lot wrong with this country’s media, but these two proposals won’t help. They are at best unnecessary, and at worst potentially hugely damaging to the freedom of the press which has been so instrumental in our democracy for centuries.
That’s why I feel so strongly about them.
Peter Heaton-Jones MP
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