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April 7, 2014updated 11 Apr 2014 3:42pm

Law set to give Attorney General power to edit online news archives in the run-up to trials

By Paul McNally

Nine of Britain's biggest news organisations have issued a joint warning to MPs about the potential "chilling effect" of a planned law forcing online archive news stories to be removed in the run-up to a criminal trial.
Clauses 37 and 38 of the new Criminal Justice and Courts Bill introduce new powers which will allow the Attorney General and the courts to require owners of online news archives to remove material which it is argued might prejudice upcoming proceedings.
If the website operators fail to comply, the current proposals stipulate that criminal sanctions could follow in the form of either an unlimited fine or imprisonment.
The news groups write in their submission to parliament that the measures "are unnecessary and are likely to have an unnecessarily restrictive impact on the media’s coverage of court proceedings and the accessibility of news archives by the public".
The group also warns that the introduction of statutory powers sets a dangerous precedent as it gives "power to influence the editorial content of national news organisations to a member of the government".
They said it could lead to the use of take-down notices becoming standard practice, leading to the courts and media becoming inundated with requests.
On the broadcast side, the submission is backed by the BBC, ITN and Channel 4. Six newspaper groups have also signed: Guardian News and Media, The Independent, Express Newspapers, Telegraph Media Group, Associated Newspapers and Times Newspapers.
The group wrote: "We are concerned that the introduction of these new powers could introduce a chilling effect on the operation and accessibility of public news archives, and ask Parliament to reconsider."
They argue that the measures are unnecessary, particularly since other clauses in the bill create a specific offence for jurors who research a case during the trial period.
The news organisations added that if the measures were implemented against their advice, parliament must look at how they would be applied in practice "as a matter of urgency" – in consultation with the media.
"The press has a duty to report court proceedings in its capacity as public watchdog. Any restrictions on this freedom have to be proportionate and no more than are necessary," the submission says.
"We believe that news archives are best viewed by analogy with a newspaper library. Contemporary publications on the internet can be distinguished from archives due to the necessity with the latter to apply search criteria which is a quite deliberate and directed act.
The group added that the measures have "serious practical implications for the resourcing and maintenance of and public access to the archives of both national and regional media".
Under the current legislation once proceedings become active, mainstream media organisations have a policy of not linking to material in their archives that may be prejudicial, but which was unproblematic when it was first published.
The Attorney General's Office said in a statement: "The proposed change is meant to add clarity and assist publishers who would no longer have to continuously monitor their archives for potential contempt.

"Before serving a notice, the Attorney would have to be satisfied the material creates a substantial risk of prejudice.

"If the publisher continues to leave the information online, it will still ultimately be for the court to decide what action to take."

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