The Press Association has said that all of its news services would be “put at risk” by costs sanctions proposed in the Data Protection Bill and warned of its potentially “devastating effect” on the news industry.
House of Lords amendments to the bill currently have it that data protection breaches made by news publishers not signed up to a Royal Charter-recognised regulator will result in them paying legal fees for both sides in court battles, win or lose.
The majority of newspapers and magazines are regulated by the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which has said it will not apply for Royal Charter recognition – seeing it as state-sponsored regulation.
Currently only alternative Impress, which has fewer than 100 members, is recognised under the Royal Charter system.
The data bill will bring the UK in line with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation that aims to unify data privacy laws across Europe to protect citizens’ data. It comes into force on 25 May.
Prime Minister Theresa May has vowed to overturn peers’ changes to the bill, which is currently being reviewed by a Public Bill Committee in the House of Commons.
The bill’s cost sanctions mirror those under Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which the Government has said it is also seeking to repeal.
In written evidence to Parliament, PA editor-in-chief Peter Clifton said: “All the PA’s services will be put at risk by costs sanctions proposed in the Data Protection Bill, which could, and doubtless will, be used to devastating effect against the Press Association as well as all other news agencies and international, national and local newspapers and magazines.
“The provisions in the Bill jeopardise our bedrock news services that ensure open government and open justice.
PA celebrates its 150th anniversary as the national news agency of the UK and Ireland this year. It employs 400 journalists and is signed up to IPSO.
Clifton said because PA had chosen to join IPSO and not a regulator approved under the Royal Charter system, it faces paying both sides’ legal costs “however false any allegation against us proves to be”.
He added that just one of the “pernicious consequences” of the bill’s costs sanctions would be to “obstruct” PA’s reporting on the criminal and civil justice system.
“Many people who are subject to official investigation and court proceedings wish to escape publicity, and try to repress inquiry and report of any investigation, arrest, court proceedings and the outcome, and to prevent photography in streets surrounding the court,” he said.
“They also seek to remove links to published reports and excise them from media archives. They will use any legal means to kill press reports – and this bill gives them that weapon.
“Indeed, the bill’s costs sanctions clauses would even mean that a convicted criminal wishing to deter reporting of his case could launch the most hopeless of data protection claims against the Press Association, safe in the knowledge that the court which struck out his claim would also be obliged to order us to pay his legal costs as well as our own.”
Clifton said PA could face repeated claims, with costs running to tens of thousands of pounds for each case, aside from its own legal costs, even if it was vindicated in court.
“Few agencies and media organisations have the resources to withstand such consequences of the bill,” he said.
“The bill’s costs sanctions clauses are not simply a threat to the Press Association’s court reporting services. The bill is a powerful disincentive to any court coverage by local and national press, which presents a major threat to open justice.”
He said PA would be forced to fund a “proliferation of data protection claims against us… simply because we have chosen to be regulated and adhere to a tough regulatory regime over and above the law, but without joining a state-sponsored regulator”.
“That threat applies not just to the Press Association, but to every other news agency, newspaper and magazine, local or national, UK or overseas, in print or online,” he said.
“We condemn these clauses. They would punish the Press Association for acting lawfully and for reasons of principle. They would impose sanctions upon the Press Association for the most scrupulous, lawful reporting in the public interest.
“They breach the European Convention on Human Rights, and will seriously chill freedom of expression.
“We are delighted that the Government has decided to end the Leveson Inquiry and we now urge similar common sense to be shown by making amendments to the Data Protection Bill to remove the threat to media freedom in the UK.”
PA editor Peter Clifton. Picture: PA