Amendment 124

Part of Online Safety Bill - Committee (8th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 10:15 pm on 23 May 2023.

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Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) 10:15, 23 May 2023

My Lords, I join noble Lords who have sent their best wishes to the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord McNally.

His Majesty’s Government are committed to defending the invaluable role of a free media. We are clear that our online safety legislation must protect the vital role of the press in providing people with reliable and accurate information.

We have included strong protections for news publishers’ and journalistic content in the Bill, which extends to the exemption from the Bill’s safety duties for users’ comments and reviews on news publishers’ sites. This reflects a wider exemption for comments and reviews on provider content more generally. For example, reviews of products on retailers’ sites are also exempt from regulation. This is designed to avoid disproportionate regulatory burden on low-risk services.

Amendment 124 intends to modify that exemption, so that the largest news websites no longer benefit and are subject to the Bill’s regulatory regime. Below-the-line comments are crucial for enabling reader engagement with the news and encouraging public debate, as well as for the sustainability—and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, put it, the accountability—of the news media. We do not consider it proportionate, necessary or compatible with our commitment to press freedom to subject these comment sections to oversight by Ofcom.

We recognise that there can sometimes be unpleasant or abusive below-the-line comments. We have carefully considered the risks of this exemption against the need to protect freedom of speech and media freedoms on matters of public interest. Although comment functions will not be subject to online regulation, I reassure the Members of the Committee who raised concerns about some of the comments which have attracted particular attention that sites hosting such comments can, in some circumstances, be held liable for any illegal content appearing on them, where they have actual knowledge of the content in question and fail to remove it expeditiously.

The strong protections for recognised news publishers in the Bill include exempting their content from the Bill’s safety duties, requiring category 1 platforms to notify recognised news publishers and to offer a right of appeal before removing or moderating any of their content. Clause 50 stipulates the clear criteria that publishers will have to meet to be considered a “recognised news publisher” and to benefit from those protections. When drafting these criteria, the Government have been careful to ensure that established news publishers are captured, while limiting the opportunity for bad actors to qualify.

Amendment 126 seeks to restrict the criteria for recognised news publishers in the Bill, so that only members of an approved regulator within the meaning of Section 42 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 benefit from the protections offered by the Bill. This would create strong incentives for publishers to join specific press regulators. We do not consider this to be compatible with our commitment to a free press. We will repeal existing legislation that could have that effect, specifically Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, through the media Bill, as noble Lords have noted, which has recently been published. Without wanting to make a rod for my own back when we come to that Bill, I agree with my noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood that it would be the opportunity to have this debate, if your Lordships so wished.

The current effect of this amendment would be to force all news publishers to join a single press regulator—namely Impress, the only UK regulator which has sought approval by the Press Recognition Panel—if they were to benefit from the exclusion for recognised news publishers. Requiring a publisher to join specific regulators is, in the view of His Majesty’s Government, not only incompatible with protecting press freedom in the UK but unnecessary given the range of detailed criteria which a publisher must meet to qualify for the additional protections, as set out in Clause 50 of the Bill.

As part of our commitment to media freedom, we are committed to independent self-regulation of the press. As I have indicated, Clause 50 stipulates the clear criteria which publishers will have to meet to be considered a “recognised news publisher” and to benefit from the protections in the Bill. One of those criteria is for entities to have policies and procedures for handling and resolving complaints. Amendment 127 from the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, adds a requirement that these policies and procedures must cover handling and resolving complaints “in a timely manner”. To include such a requirement will place the responsibility on Ofcom to decide what constitutes “timely”, and, in effect, put it in the position of press regulator. That is not something that we would like. We believe that the criteria set out in Clause 50 are already strong, and we have taken significant care to ensure that established news publishers are captured, while limiting the opportunity for bad actors to benefit.

I turn now to Amendment 227. We recognise that, as legislation comes into force, it will be necessary to ensure that the protections we have put in place for journalistic and news publisher content are effective. We need to ensure that the regulatory framework does not hinder access to such content, particularly in the light of the fact that, in the past, news content has sometimes been removed or made less visible by social media moderators or algorithms for unclear reasons, often at the height of news cycles. That is why we have required Ofcom to produce a specific report, under Clause 144, assessing the impact of the Bill on the availability and treatment of news publisher and journalistic content on category 1 services.

Amendment 227 would require Ofcom’s report also to assess the impact that the recognised news publisher exemption and journalistic content duties have on the efficacy of the new online safety regulatory framework, and

“the securing of public safety from online harms”.

The Bill currently requires the Secretary of State to review the regulatory framework established by the Bill at least two years after it comes into force, as set out in Clause 159. This review will encompass the elements that these amendments seek to assess, because it requires an evaluation of how effective the new regulatory framework is at minimising the risk of harm to people in the United Kingdom.

The Secretary of State must consult Ofcom in producing this report, as well as any other persons she considers appropriate. Any concerns about the recognised news publisher and journalistic content exemptions can be brought to the Secretary of State’s attention in the course of this review. Requiring Ofcom also to assess these factors in the production of its report under Clause 144 would therefore be duplicative. On that basis, I hope the noble Lord will be willing to—