Roy Greenslade: Why Snooper's Charter, Data Protection Act and Section 40 all threaten UK's status as bastion of press freedom

Reporters Without Borders board member Roy Greenslade’s speech to the British Journalism Awards at the De Vere Grand Connaught Rooms.

I am sorry to say that this has been a terrible year for press freedom around the world. Perhaps I should say: another terrible year.

Too many journalists have died. According to the figures compiled by our organisation, 65 journalists have been killed since January 2017. And there are far too many in jail as well. It’s a sad fact that the numbers of journalists now in prison are greater than ever before.

Journalists have been openly vilified by political leaders, such as presidents Trump and Putin and Erdogan, thereby encouraging people to vilify us in turn. To quote a Reporters Without Borders statement earlier this year: we are suffering from “a highly toxic anti-media discourse” which has driven the world into “a new era of post-truth, disinformation and fake news”.

The result is that the role of the news media, and its mission to hold power to account, is daily being undermined. While our task is to open windows on to the world for our audiences, Trump, Putin and Erdogan are busy trying to wall up those windows, because they don’t want the truth to reach people.

You know all this, of course. We are enabled in this democratic state to see what is happening and thus to inform our readers and viewers and listeners about it. Across the world, people who are denied the right to express themselves look to Britain as a bastion of press freedom. They measure their own lack of that freedom by comparing it with ours.

But that same measurement is also made by the rulers who oppose press freedom, those who jail journalists, those who allow journalists to be killed and do nothing to investigate their murders, those who shut down newspapers, radio stations and TV channels, those who turn a blind eye to the intimidation of journalists, those who seek to control what gets published and broadcast by licensing journalism.

Those predators of press freedom are only too delighted when they are able to point to restrictions on press freedom in Britain. Look, they say to their own journalists, to their own peoples, look what happens in that country you all regard as so perfect. Their freedom is a sham.

Although we do not consciously wage our fight against encroachments on our press freedom here in Britain on behalf of oppressed people elsewhere, it happens to be a side effect that stands to our credit. We should be proud that what happens here has a positive resonance elsewhere.

So where are we on press freedom in Britain? Not, it appears, anything like as free as we would wish… as free as should be the case. Our organisation’s current world press freedom index places the UK in 40th place out of 180 countries, which was two places down on the previous year and 12 places down on our position in 2012.

Why is our ranking so low? The short answer: the Investigatory Powers Act, the Law Commission’s proposals for an Espionage Act and certain clauses in the proposed Data Protection Bill and, of course, the continuing threat of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act. Oh, and lest we forget, there’s Facebook.

Let me remind you of those in just a little detail.

The Investigatory Powers Act, rightly nicknamed the snooper’s charter, has given the police and intelligence agencies sweeping surveillance powers. It even legitimises phone and computer hacking, and many in this room will be struck by that black irony. Under its provisions, all of our confidential sources could be discovered. And that’s not at all far-fetched given what the police achieved under the old act, Ripa.

Yes, in certain circumstances, the snoopers will require permission from a judge to go about their work, but the safeguards for our work are anything but strong.

The mooted Espionage Act, a supposed replacement for the Official Secrets Act, has been put to one side. The government has distanced itself from it, at least for the present.

In effect, if enacted as the commission desires, it would equate journalists with spies in the sense that receiving information, which is what reporters do, and are supposed to do, would place them in jeopardy of being jailed as if they were traitors.

As for the information-givers, those essential whistleblowers on whom we depend, they would not be able to advance a public interest justification for their leaks.

The Guardian’s former investigations editor, David Leigh, was so right in noting that it would “have an indefensible chilling effect on free speech” and “open the way to the criminalisation of bona fide journalists”.

I’m sure all of us believe it to be hugely important to combat terrorism. But the balance appears to have tilted too far towards surveillance and against the vital job of journalism.

Another chill on investigative journalism is evident in certain clauses contained in the Data Protection Bill now making its way through parliament.

It has alarmed current affairs broadcasters and newspapers because it would allow the Information Commissioner the power to determine, prior to publication, whether a journalist’s handling of personal data is relevant and therefore legal.

That cannot be right. Under the current act, if personal data is processed only for journalism (or for academic inquiry), and if its publication can be deemed to be in the public interest, then journalists have an exemption.

Prior restraint on our trade is unacceptable. Imagine a scenario in which the Information Commissioner has the right to decide whether a Panorama reporter should secretly film in a care home where there is a suspicion of abuse? Thank goodness that filming was allowed to proceed and bright a scandal to public attention.

And then, most monstrous of all, comes the drama of Section 40. It hasn’t gone away you know. The Government’s decision about whether to implement it is said to imminent. I doubt very much that this government will dare to trigger such a controversial anti-free press measure at present. But, even it does, as expected, reject the notion, the problem is that it will remain on the statute book and could be used by any government in future.

Reporters Without Borders believes Section 40 must be repealed. It is iniquitous to think that a person bringing a legal action against a newspaper could do so without any possible cost to themselves. For publishers and editors, it is a nightmare scenario, an unjustified and unjust measure without precedence in legal or journalistic history.

RWB has not taken a position on press regulation, so this bit is personal.

The new low-cost arbitration system set up by IPSO, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, offers genuine complainants with a way to win redress. That final part of the post-Leveson jigsaw effectively neuters the arguments advanced by critics of the regulator.  I think fair to say we’re impressed with IPSO and not with Impress.

I just want to finish with a word about the killing of the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. You know that she died when her car was bombed on 16 October and are probably aware that three men have since been charged with her murder, while seven more are on bail.

But Reporters Without Borders maintains that an independent, international inquiry should be held into Daphne’s death. Her sons, who spoke to our board recently, have good reason to suspect that there is a political aspect to the murder because Daphne was investigating corruption at the highest levels of the Maltese government. They have called for the senior investigator to be replaced. We sincerely hope everyone here will support our call for an investigation into the callous, premeditated murder of a fine journalist.

 

 

 

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