Labour’s ‘plans for two-tier press regulation that would favour supportive Guardian over other newspapers’ would be illegal, warns a leading QC
- Antony White said proposals to punish papers would be ‘struck down’ by courts
- He said amendments tabled by Tom Watson would violate human rights laws
- Mr Watson’s measures would apply to any newspaper that refused to sign up to the state-approved Press regulator
Antony White (pictured) said proposals to punish newspapers by forcing them to pay huge legal bills – even if they won a case – would be ‘struck down’ by the courts
A ‘chilling’ assault on Press freedom by Labour would be illegal, a leading QC has warned.
Antony White said proposals to punish newspapers by forcing them to pay huge legal bills – even if they won a case – would be ‘struck down’ by the courts.
He said ‘disadvantageous’ amendments tabled by anti-media campaigner Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, would violate human rights laws. Mr Watson’s measures would apply to any newspaper that refused to sign up to the state-approved Press regulator.
There is only one regulator with official recognition, Impress, which is funded almost entirely through a family trust by ex-Formula 1 boss Max Mosley, whose racist past was exposed by the Daily Mail.
Mr Watson has accepted £540,000 in donations from the former motor racing chief, who has been an ardent supporter of state-backed Press regulation since being exposed for taking part in an S&M orgy with prostitutes.
Almost all national and local newspapers, including the Daily Mail, are members of the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which is entirely free of state control.
The proposals echo the heavily criticised Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which Culture Secretary Matt Hancock has refused to implement.
The draconian amendments, which critics claim amount to ‘blackmail’, would force newspapers not signed up to Impress to pay all legal costs in data protection cases even if they were successful. Impress members would be exempt from the punitive regime.
In a legal opinion for the News Media Association, Mr White said Mr Watson’s amendments to the Data Protection Bill could be a breach of Articles 10, 14 and 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of expression, safeguards against discrimination and guarantees a fair trial.
He said ‘disadvantageous’ amendments tabled by anti-media campaigner Tom Watson (pictured), Labour’s deputy leader, would violate human rights laws
He said: ‘In my view… the disadvantageous costs regime imposed… on media publishers which make the lawful and principled choice to join Ipso and not to join Impress violates these directly effective Charter rights.’
If enacted, they would be ‘liable to be struck down by the UK courts’. The top barrister said: ‘Parliament cannot lawfully enact legislation which is incompatible with directly applicable EU law measures.’
He added: ‘It is a fundamental principle of public law that it is unlawful to punish a person who has done nothing wrong.’
The proposed changes, which go before MPs on Wednesday, would make it harder to carry out investigative journalism and protect the identity of sources who reveal wrongdoing, meaning that criminals, corrupt business leaders and cheating MPs could avoid being exposed.
Attack on papers spares Guardian
Labour’s bid to force newspapers into state-backed regulation contains an extraordinary loophole that would exempt just two national newspapers – the Labour-supporting Guardian and Observer.
Proposals put forward by deputy leader Tom Watson would expose all national newspaper groups to punishing legal bills every time someone chose to sue them, even if the newspaper won.
It would apply to any newspaper that refused to sign up to the state-approved regulator Impress, funded almost entirely by ex-Formula 1 boss Max Mosley, whose racist past was exposed by the Mail. Mr Mosley has also given £540,000 to fund Mr Watson’s private office.
Almost all national and local newspapers, including the Daily Mail, are members of Ipso, which is free of state control and operates an arbitration scheme giving the public means to sue newspapers without the ruinous cost of going to court. The Guardian and The Observer have no independent regulator and no arbitration scheme.
But Mr Watson’s proposed new law would not apply to a publisher that ploughs all profits back into the business.
That would lift the threat of extra legal costs from The Guardian and The Observer, which are controlled by the Scott Trust. Its rules say that if the loss-making papers move into profit the money would be put back into their newspaper and website operation.
It would mean national newspapers that supported Labour but do not belong to an independent regulator and do not offer arbitration – the two most persistent demands of critics of the Press – would not be hit by the proposed punitive costs regime.
Rich and powerful people who feared they were under investigation could drag media companies through the courts in the knowledge that it would not cost them a penny, threatening the survival of many struggling titles. Mr White’s nine-page legal opinion stated: ‘There is no doubt that the markedly less favourable costs regime imposed on defendants who are not members of an approved regulator will have a chilling effect on the journalistic activities of publishers who have chosen not to join Impress.
‘They will inevitably be less willing to investigate and publish articles about living individuals which might attract claims for breach of the data protection legislation.
‘That chilling effect will have an impact even where a publisher believes it has grounds to defend such a claim, because the effect of [the clause] is that it will be unlikely to recover its costs even if the claim fails.’
Mr Hancock’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said the amendments ‘would undermine a free Press and high-quality, investigative journalism’.
The new Data Protection Bill aims to strengthen rights and empower individuals to have more control over their personal information, while slapping heavy fines on organisations that do not safeguard sensitive data.
It has an exemption for journalists who access and store personal information without consent when reporting news in the public interest.
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