Amendment 124

Part of Online Safety Bill - Committee (8th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:29 pm on 23 May 2023.

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Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology) 9:29, 23 May 2023

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 124 but also to Amendments 126 and 227, all of which were tabled by my noble friend Lord McNally and supported by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. Sadly, they are both unable to do battle today, for health reasons, and I start by wishing them both a speedy recovery. I hope that I at least partly do justice to their intentions and to these amendments today.

These amendments are designed to address significant loopholes in the Bill which have been very clearly pointed out by Hacked Off, Impress—the press regulator—and the Press Recognition Panel. These loopholes risk enabling extremist publishers to take advantage of the overbroad “recognised news publisher” exemption and allow hatred and other online harms to spread on some of the most popular social media forums online—the newspaper comment sections. Amendment 124 would remove comment sections operated by news websites where the publisher has a UK turnover of more than £100 million from the exemption for regulated user-generated content.

Some of the most harmful online content is in newspaper comment sections, which are in fact social media forums themselves and are read by millions of readers every day. Hacked Off has found examples of misogyny, explicit anti-Semitic language, Holocaust denial and more. Women in public life are also the target of misogyny in these comments sections. Professor Corinne Fowler, an academic who was criticised by some newspapers after contributing to a National Trust report, describing her experience, wrote that

“unregulated comments beneath articles, including the Telegraph and The Times as well as the Daily Mail and the Express … contained scores of suggestions about how to kill or injure me. Some were general ideas, such as hanging, but many were gender-specific, saying that I should be burnt at the stake like a witch … without me knowing, my son (then 12 years old) read these reader comments. He became afraid for my safety. The comments were easily accessible: he googled ‘Corinne Fowler National Trust’ and scrolled below the articles. No child should have to deal with hate speech directed at a parent”.

Amendment 126 would have the effect of incentivising newspapers to sign up to an independent regulator. It would expand the definition of a “recognised news publisher” to incorporate any entity that is a member of an approved regulator, while excluding publishers that are not members of such a regulator, unless they are broadcasters and regulated by Ofcom. Recognised news publishers enjoy wide exemptions in the Bill. Their content is not only protected from being taken down by platforms, but a new provision will require platforms to actively consult media publishers before removing their content. As a result, news publishers will enjoy greater free speech rights under the Bill than private citizens.

The criteria to qualify as a “recognised news publisher” is different for broadcasters and other media. For broadcasters, outlets must be regulated by Ofcom. For non-broadcast media, outlets need only meet a list of vague criteria: have a standards code, which could say anything; have a complaints process, which could also say anything; have a UK office; have staff; and not be a sanctioned title. As a result, a host of extremist and disinformation publishing websites may qualify immediately, or with minor administrative changes, for this rather generous exemption. For example, conspiracy theorist and racist David Icke’s website could qualify with minor administrative changes. He would be free to propagate his dangerous and, in many cases, anti-Semitic conspiracies on social media. Heritage and Destiny, an openly racist website, would likewise be able to qualify with minor changes and spread racial hatred on social media. Infowars could open up a UK office, qualify and spread harmful content on social media.

This amendment would replace that vague list of criteria with the simple requirement that, to access the exemption, non-broadcast media publishers must be in a PRP-approved independent regulator. The effect would be that extremists and harmful publishers would not be able to access the exemption. All publishers would have the same free speech rights as everyone else, unless they are otherwise regulated under the charter system or Ofcom in the case of broadcasters.

Amendment 227 requires Ofcom’s reporting on the impact of the regulatory regime on the availability and treatment of news publishers and journalistic content to also cover what impact the news publisher exemption and journalistic content duty have on the regime’s efficacy. The Bill requires Ofcom to publish a report on whether the new regime will harm freedom of the press. This is despite the fact the Bill already goes to extraordinary lengths to protect the interests of the press. This very modest amendment would require Ofcom’s report to also query whether the news publisher exemption is undermining the regulatory regime.

Impress, which is the UK’s only press regulator approved by the Press Recognition Panel under royal charter, says that the Bill leaves the public vulnerable and exposed to online harms and therefore falls short of the Government’s aim of making the UK the safest place to be online. It has summarised the three ways in which the current Bill is in danger of undermining its principal function—to protect the public from online harms—which could be resolved by these amendments.

First, the Bill creates an uneven playing field. A poor definition of what constitutes a news publisher threatens to undermine the public protection benefits of the Bill. Secondly, the Bill misses an opportunity to fight misinformation or disinformation. The Bill undermines industry standards and fails to distinguish journalism from fake news. Thirdly, the Bill could be easily used as a cover to spread serious harms. The Bill’s current journalism exemptions create dangerous loopholes which could easily be exploited to spread misinformation and disinformation. Publishers should be required to demonstrate compliance and oversight in relation to their published code of conduct and complaints policy.

If we needed any more persuasion, a letter to me from David Wolfe KC, the chair of the PRP, provides an additional twist:

“I am writing to draw your attention to the Bill’s potential impact on the regulation of the press and news publishers in the UK. Specifically, to Clause 50 of the Bill, which explains the circumstances in which news publishers are taken out of the proposed Ofcom regulatory regime … it does not specify any minimum standards and does not specify who is to assess publishers. The practical implication, though, is that Ofcom—whose board are appointed by the Secretary of State … and which operates under their direct oversight—will not only set the minimum requirements but also undertake the assessment. Paradoxically, the possibility of political interference, which Lord Leveson and the Royal Charter set out to avoid (in the Royal Charter and PRP framework) might now be directly introduced for all UK news publishers”.

That means that the national press, which has avoided regulation, is coming under the regulation of Ofcom. I will be very interested to hear what a number of noble Lords might have to say on that subject.

Taken together, these amendments would address serious flaws in the Bill, and I very much hope that the Government’s response will be to reflect on them. I beg to move.