Amendment 124

Part of Online Safety Bill - Committee (8th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:45 pm on 23 May 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated 9:45, 23 May 2023

My Lords, while considering this group of amendments, a comment by Index on Censorship came to mind. Critical of aspects of the Bill, it worried out loud about whether this legislation

“will reverse the famous maxim ‘publish and be damned’, to become, ‘consider the consequences of all speech, or be damned’”.

In that context, I am very grateful—relieved at least— that the freedom of the press is given due regard and protections in the Bill. Freedom of the press is one practical form in which freedom of expression exists and is invaluable in a democracy. It is so crucial that it has been at the centre of democratic struggles in this very Parliament for more than five centuries—ever since the first printing press meant that the masses could gain access to the written word. It fuelled the pamphleteers of the English Civil War. It made a hero of MP John Wilkes in the 18th century, his victory giving the press freedom to report on the goings-on of the great and the good, to muckrake and to dig the dirt; long may that continue.

So I welcome that news publishers’ content on their own websites is not in scope of the legislation; that if platforms take down or restrict access to trusted news sources, they will face significant sanctions; that platforms must notify news publishers if they want to take down their content and, if the publisher disputes that, the platform must not remove it until the dispute is resolved; and that Ofcom must also review the efficacy of how well the platforms are protecting news.

I say “Hurrah!” to all that. If only the Bill treated all content with such a liberal and proportionate approach, I would not be standing up and speaking quite so much. But on the press specifically, I strongly oppose Amendments 124 and 126—as well as Amendment 127, now that it has been explained and I understand it; I did not quite before. Amendment 124 would mean that the comment section of the largest newspaper websites were subject to the regulation in the Bill.

It is important to note—as has been explained—that user comments are already regulated by IPSO, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, and that individual publishers have strong content moderation system policies and the editor is ultimately liable for comments. That is the key issue here. This is about protecting editorial independence from state interference. Amendment 124 does the opposite. That amendment would also restrict the ability of UK citizens to discuss and engage with publishers’ content.

It is part of a lively and vital public square to be free to debate and discuss articles in newspapers. We have heard some pretty graphic and grim descriptions from the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, about those comments; but for me, ironically, the comment section in newspapers is a form of accountability of the press to readers and the audience. Although the descriptions were grim, much of that section is intelligent, well-informed and interesting feedback. I will talk a little about hate afterwards.

What is more, one likely outcome of this amendment is that newspapers could shut down their comments sections. The cost of investing in proactive scanning or child safety technology would be prohibitively expensive, and I think that would be a great loss. Whenever a newspaper article is published and, maybe because it is controversial, the newspaper decides not to have a comments section, all over social media people say, “That’s not fair, I wanted to say something on it”, and they just comment on social media.

I am especially opposed to Amendment 126, which would mean that only those news publishers that would qualify for recognised news-publisher status would have to be a member of an approved regulator. We have to be clear what is meant by approved here: it means state approved. It would be the return of state licensing of the press and wipe out all those hard-won gains dating back from Milton’s Areopagitica and John Lilburne and the Levellers’ sacrifices for press freedom. I just do not want to throw those away; it would leave publishers in an impossible position of choosing between submitting to state-backed regulation or leaving their media content open to censure or censorship by tech giants, or Ofcom.

I think it is an attempt at coercing or bullying these papers into what is a Hacked Off-inspired, Leveson-style regulation system by the back door that has been rejected by the vast majority of the print media, as has been explained. It will remove vital protections for press freedom built into the Bill and allow anyone who refused to be blackmailed into state licensing and statutory content regulation, or thrown under the bus, and it would effectively greenlight Silicon Valley censorship of UK journalism.

That said, while it is important to give due respect to press freedom under a specific category, just as we do with academic freedom, I am still a little squeamish about the special-favours approach towards the mainstream media, as it is described, and legacy media. Perhaps that is the one thing on which I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. Privileging comments sections of newspapers, while offering no parallel protections for some members of the public to comment on social media on the internet itself, is a problem. While we are focusing in this Bill only and largely on the negatives of the internet, we should remember that it has been hugely democratising, removing official gatekeeping and allowing ordinary people to publish and amplify their voices, which were often silenced or ignored in the past. Yet now they are peculiarly subject to censorious measures and, what is more, their reputations are traduced.

I thought it was interesting, listening to the discussion about hate in response to the way the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, discussed the comments section in newspapers—which I am not naive enough to imagine are not full of some horrors, as they described—that there is a danger that we have an impression of the British public as a hate-fuelled mob who, as soon as you let them speak, spew out anti-Semitism, misogyny and all the rest of it. As I constantly try to say throughout this Bill, the whole notion of hate is at least subjective and often quite complicated.

One example that happened just a couple of days ago was when an organisation called Stop Funding Hate, in response to an article about a female sportswoman who legitimately raised concerns about the disputes on sex and gender in sport, and who believes that women’s sport is in danger and on the line, described it as “bigotry” and “hate”. That led to a great deal of abuse of the female athlete. Stop Funding Hate then led a campaign to get a corporate boycott of advertising from the Telegraph, on the basis that the article was hate-fuelled—whereas I think the censorious boycott was hate-fuelled.

Therefore, using big business money, in this instance, as a weapon to dictate editorial content shows that press freedom is on the line in a variety of ways. Women arguing for protecting single-sex sport, and then being subject to vile misogyny, themselves being described as using transphobic hate speech shows me, at least, that in the name of fighting hate we should not have any attempts to assault press freedom. I will oppose all three of these amendments.