Guardian distances itself from 'anti-press' Data Protection Bill amendments which would exclude title from paying punitive legal costs

The Guardian and Observer publisher has distanced itself from an amendment to the Data Protection Bill which would uniquely exempt the titles from paying punitive legal costs.

Peers’ Section 40 amendments to the bill, which would see publishers pay both sides’ legal costs in data protection disputes, win or lose, have been  slammed by many publishers as “anti-press”.

Guardian News and Media has said it has written to all MPs making clear that it disagrees with “attempts to impose a selective sanction on the media” ahead of a Commons vote later today.

MPs will vote on an amendment, tabled by deputy Labour leader Tom Watson, this afternoon.

As it stands, news organisations signed up to a state-sponsored regulator – currently only Impress – would avoid the cost penalties.

Most national newspapers and regional newspaper groups are signed up to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, a system of self-regulation which has just announced a compulsory arbitration scheme that could force publishers to pay out up to £60,000 to victims of press abuses.

The scheme would cost claimants a maximum of £100, offering an alternative to costly legal action over libel, privacy, harassment, and data protection claims.

The new scheme brings IPSO closer in line with recommendations made by Lord Justice Leveson following his inquiry in the culture, practice and ethics of the press, which concluded in 2012.

The 104 publishers regulated by Impress, which was recognised under the Royal Charter established after the Leveson Inquiry, would be exempt from paying all legal costs in cases brought under the Data Protection Bill.

Major UK newspapers not regulated by IPSO or Impress include the Guardian, Observer, Financial Times, Independent and Evening Standard – all of which self-regulate.

However the Guardian’s funding model is unique as it directs any profits to its ultimate owner, not-for-profit group The Scott Trust.

GNM said yesterday it was never consulted on a condition of Watson’s amendment which would exempt publishers which reinvest their profits back into journalism.

This condition has been widely interpreted as ensuring that news
organisations structured along the lines of the Guardian and the Observer should be excluded from the scope of the bill.

In a statement, GNM said: “While the model used by the Scott Trust is recognised in the amendment as maintaining high standards of journalism, it is a structure that is unique among UK publishers and rare globally as a model for news organisations.

“We do not believe that singling out one model of ownership for news organisations in this way is a constructive approach.

“We live in an age of diverse ownership, constitutions and business models underpinning news organisations in this country and around the world. This amendment implies that just one ownership model can result in the production of high quality journalism, which is simply not correct.”

The Guardian is still operating at a loss of £19m, but has said it is set to break even by April next year.

Antony White QC, who acted for News International during the Leveson inquiry, said this week the Data Protection Bill amendment could be unlawful partially because he believes it breaches the prohibition of discrimination section of the European Convention of Human Rights.

The amendment “singles out publishers organised on the basis of a lawful commercial model (those which generate profits for their shareholders)” and exempts smaller publishers which publish “predominantly in specific regions of localities”.

GNM said: “Such arbitrary exclusions set an unwelcome precedent in the context of press freedom. What is needed is a system that is fair for all – the current proposals are not.”

MPs are also set to vote today on an amendment to the bill tabled by Ed Miliband MP which would establish a broad new statutory inquiry into data protection issues in the media after the Government scrapped the second part of the Leveson inquiry.

The Financial Times, which is also self-regulated, said in an editorial today that both amendments “would force our hand and chill freedom of expression in this country”.

“Investigative journalism – such as the FT’s expose of The Presidents Club this year – could well become too risky given the potential costs,” it said.

“It would be handing rich individuals a licence to harass the press, free of charge.”

A group of regional newspaper editors spoke out against the amendments this week, calling them “anti-press” and fearing they could result in local titles closing.

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