Amendment 124

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Black of Brentwood Lord Black of Brentwood Conservative 9:29, 23 May 2023

My Lords, I join the noble Lord in wishing the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Lipsey, well. I hope they are watching us on the television—perhaps as a cure for insomnia at this time of night. I declare my interest as deputy chairman of the Telegraph Media Group and of the Regulatory Funding Company and note my other interests set out in the register. I must admit I was gripped by a sense of déjà vu when I saw these amendments on the Marshalled List, because I fear they risk catapulting us back into the debate over matters which were settled a decade ago in response to events which took place two decades or more ago.

Before coming on to the detail of some of the amendments that the noble Lord set out, I will make a few general points which relate principally to Amendments 126 and 227 but impinge on the whole group.

First, I do not believe that this Bill, which is about the enormous, unaccountable and unregulated platforms and the dangers they pose to the vulnerable, is the place to reopen the debate about press regulation. Later in the year there will be a media Bill, recently published in draft, which will contain provisions to repeal Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. If noble Lords want to discuss the whole issue of the royal charter and punitive legislation against the press, I respectfully suggest that that is the time and place to do so.

Secondly, this Bill has widespread support. The vast majority of people agree with its aims, even if we have disagreements at the edges. If the Bill ceases to be the Online Safety Bill and becomes the state regulation of the press Bill, it will become enormously controversial not just here but internationally.

That is my third point: the enormous global ramifications of seeking to use novel online legislation to force state-backed regulation on the press. The Crime and Courts Act 2013 and the establishment of the royal charter were roundly condemned by international press freedom organisations worldwide—the very same press freedom organisations we all claim to support when talking about the safety of journalists or the way in which the press is controlled in authoritarian regimes. Those same organisations condemned it utterly and they would look on with incredulity and horror if this, the first brave piece of legislation in the world to tackle online safety, was corrupted in this way and in a manner which sent the wrong signals to undemocratic regimes worldwide that it is okay to censor the press in the name of making the platforms accountable.

I was going to make a few comments about IPSO, which the noble Lord raised, but I see that the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, is in his place and I am sure he will make them much more effectively than I would.

The other general point is that this group of amendments flies in the face of the most fundamental Leveson recommendation. In his report, he stressed that it was essential that the system of self-regulation remained voluntary. What these proposals do is the antithesis of that. In effect, they hold a gun to the head of the industry and say, “Either you join a state-approved regulator, or you’re subject to the statutory control of Ofcom”. There is no voluntary element in that at all because either route ends up in a form of state regulation. That is Hobson’s choice.

Finally, as I have said to this House before, and I hoped I would never have to say again, the vast majority of the press will not under any circumstances join a regulator which is authorised by a state body and underpinned by the threat of legislation. Even Sir Brian Leveson said that he recognised that this was a matter of principle. That principle is that the press cannot be free if it is subject to any form of statutory control, however craftily concealed. That position has existed for many centuries and is threatened by the amendments. The reason for that is that if Amendment 126, and some of the others, went through, none of the major publishers at national, regional and local level, nor magazines, would be exempt from the terms of the Bill and would become subject to the statutory control of Ofcom—something that Ofcom has always made clear that it wants nothing to do with—and the prospect of unlimited penal sanctions. That is the end of a free press, by any definition.

I will very briefly discuss a few specifics. Amendment 124 seeks to bring the comments sections of basically all national newspaper websites within the Bill’s statutory regime. These are already regulated by IPSO, unless the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, corrects me, and they come under its jurisdiction as soon as a complaint is made to the publishers, even if they are not moderated. Unlike social media, which is entirely different in its reach and impact, editors are legally responsible for what appears on their websites, which is why in most cases there are strong content moderation procedures in place. That is why comments sections rightly fall within the limited functionality exemption in the Bill, because there is such limited scope for harm. The impact of Amendment 124 would be to introduce confusing and complex double regulation of comments sections on websites, to the detriment of the public who wish to engage in legitimate debate.

Amendment 127 also veers in the direction of extending statutory controls, because it is a subjective test, unlike the others in Clause 50, which would in effect require either the tech platforms or Ofcom to make value judgments about the timeliness of complaints handling, either by publishers or by IPSO. When it comes to media freedom, subjective tests in the hands of state regulators end up making bad law.

Finally, Amendment 227 seeks to extend Ofcom’s powers to include an assessment of whether the news publisher exemption is adversely impacting the online safety regime. That would again place a state regulator in the position of assessing whether independent voluntary self-regulation, of the sort envisaged by Leveson, complied with an online safety regime which was never intended to encompass press regulation. It is, in effect, the royal charter by the backdoor, trying to shoehorn a square peg into a round hole in a way which makes this legislation and the powers of the regulator even more complex and controversial.

At the end of the day, this should not be a press regulation Bill, and it is wrong to try to do that. It is a Bill about the responsibility of the vast unaccountable, unregulated platforms which disseminate so much dangerous and harmful content without anyone having recourse, as we have heard powerfully already this afternoon, and not a Bill about the publishers who produce verifiable, trusted journalism which is the lifeblood of a democracy. We confuse the two at our peril and at the cost of the free press, which I know all your Lordships hold dear.