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March 26, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 7:34am

Press freedom concerns raised over online harms white paper as details leak

By Freddy Mayhew

The Society of Editors has written to the Government amid concerns that its upcoming white paper on online harms, which will set out new legislation on improving internet safety, could in fact damage press freedom.

It follows a Mail on Sunday report on the weekend revealing leaked details of the policy document, which it said had been due to be published yesterday but was postponed over protests from politicians.

It said proposals included the creation of a new online regulator called Ofweb that would enforce a code of conduct drawn up by the Government, with the power to impose “huge fines” on tech platforms and their bosses.

But it said ministers had been warned of a “chilling regulatory framework” for journalists and reported that the Prime Minister had also been warned that the new measures amount to “press regulation by the back door”.

The white paper has been jointly worked on by the Home Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Society of Editors executive director Ian Murray said he had written to Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright MP raising concerns that any new online regulator and code of conduct “does not bring in press regulation by the back door nor restricts too broadly the public’s right to freedom of expression and their right to know”.

He wrote: “While no one would argue that some measures do need to be taken to protect against serious threats from online harm, there are concerns such regulation if too broad would restrict areas that were never intended to be regulated.

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“An attempt to crack down on disinformation – so-called fake news –would be a case in point. Who will decide what is fake news?

“While we appreciate that the press and media as a whole are not the target of any new regulation in this area, there is a great deal of experience of those who wish to restrict the freedom of the media using laws never intended for that end.

“And while the Society of Editors is primarily concerned about the media and any attempts to infringe on its freedoms, it is also a campaigner on behalf of freedom of expression as a whole and for the public’s right to know.

“As a body therefore we would feel concerned regarding any over-bearing attempt to restrict what can be said and what topics can be discussed online.”

The Society of Editors represents nearly 400 senior editorial staff across the UK news media.

Picture: Reuters/Peter Nicholls

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