The Queen’s Speech 2022 has revealed a series of legislative changes that will have serious ramifications for UK media.
Based on conversations with media industry sources, Press Gazette has identified five bills that could have a major impact on news companies and journalists.
● The draft Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill, a wide-reaching act that could ultimately require Google and Meta to pay for news
● The Online Safety Bill, which aims to make the UK the “safest place in the world to be online” while “safeguarding freedom of expression” and protecting journalistic content
● The Media Bill, which will enable the government to sell Channel 4, repeal Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, and give Ofcom powers to regulate streaming companies like Netflix
● The Data Reform Bill, which will aim to reduce “burdens” faced by data-handling companies under laws like General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)
● The National Security Bill, which will reform the Official Secrets Act. According to the National Union of Journalists, it could threaten reporters with prosecution.
The draft Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill
This long-awaiting piece of legislation could ultimately force the Google and Meta/Facebook Duopoly to pay publishers for their use of news content.
The effect of this legislation would be to empower the Digital Markets Unit (DMU), a division of the Competition and Markets Authority.
The DMU will be responsible for “designating” a handful of large digital companies that are judged to have “strategic market status”.
Each designated firm will have a bespoke code of conduct “to ensure they cannot abuse their dominant positions at the expense of consumers and other businesses”, including news publishers. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) laid out some of its vision for the DMU in a consultation response last week.
News publishers have long campaigned for this sort of legislation. Australia passed a similar law last year, and that is believed to have resulted in publisher deals with Google and Meta worth more than AU$200m a year. Canada is poised to introduce a similar law this year.
Because the UK’s bill will be in draft form this parliamentary year, news industry sources spoken to by Press Gazette do not expect it to come into law until 2024. This threatens to leave the UK behind Australia, Canada and other countries looking at similar legislation.
One source at a major UK news publisher said it was “disappointing” that the legislation will be in draft form this year. “The process to get to here has already been very long.”
They were also disappointed to see the bill seeking to tackle both consumer and news industry issues. “It’ll be a mammoth bit of legislation for parliamentarians to wrap their heads around. So there are inherent risks with that.”
Another news industry source said they were relieved to see the bill in the Queen’s Speech – “waiting another year would have been dreadful”.
The second source also predicted that Google and Meta would have to start “adapting their behaviour now”, i.e. by offering publishers more generous cash-for-content deals than are currently on offer.
Owen Meredith, chief executive of the News Media Association, which represents news publishers, welcomed the inclusion of the draft Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill in the Queen’s Speech and called for it to be enacted quickly.
“We are pleased the government has recognised the imbalance of bargaining power between news publishers and digital platforms and is taking this important step forward to enhance competition in the digital ecosystem,” he said.
“The Digital Markets Unit is established and operating in shadow form and we look forward to this legislation being introduced as soon as possible to give it the tools it needs to get on with the job.”
Queen’s Speech and the media: Online Safety Bill
For now, the Online Safety Bill will be the UK’s primary mechanism for holding big tech to account. The bill aims to make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online”.
The legislation will tackle on online fraud and scams, illegal content including child sexual exploitation and cyberflashing while “safeguarding freedom of expression”.
“Tech companies will no longer be able to arbitrarily remove content,” the government said in a Queen’s Speech briefing document. “If users feel like they have been treated unfairly, they will have the right to appeal. And journalistic and democratically-important content will also be protected from arbitrary removal.”
The government says that the bill will set “a higher bar for the removal of content that contributes to democratic political debate, and all ‘recognised news publishers’ will be exempt from the bill’s safety duties (for both children and adults)”.
The NUJ has previously expressed concerns about a lack of protection for journalists and their sources in the Online Safety Bill. After the Queen’s Speech, the NUJ said: “Promises to amend the bill must be delivered on, to ensure journalistic content is not stripped from sites with potentially wide-ranging impacts on media freedom. ”
The Media Bill
The Queen’s Speech contained plans for a Media Bill, which will enable the government to sell off broadcaster Channel 4.
The NUJ is opposed to the privatisation of Channel 4 over fears this could have a “detrimental impact” on its “content, including its news output, and the detrimental impact on creativity and innovation in the creative industries”.
The same bill will empower Ofcom, the UK’s broadcast regulator, to enforce a Video-on-Demand Code to protect audiences “from harmful content” on streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+.
The Media Bill will repeal Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which would force news publishers to pay both sides’ legal costs in defamation and privacy legal cases no matter their outcome, unless they are members of a Royal Charter compliant press regulator.
The law is on the statute books but yet to be activated. It would offer huge legal protections for publishers who join a Royal Charter-backed press regulator, but would also make membership of such a regulator practically compulsory for any serious news publisher.
The News Media Association’s Meredith said: “We welcome provisions announced within the Media Bill to repeal Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 – a Conservative Party manifesto commitment. Repealing this pernicious legislation will be a very welcome step forward for press freedom in this country.”
The Data Reform Bill
The Data Reform Bill will affect publishers and other companies that handle personal data.
The government wants to “create a world class data rights regime that will allow us to create a new pro-growth and trusted UK data protection framework that reduces burdens on businesses, boosts the economy, helps scientists to innovate and improves the lives of people in the UK”.
The legislation will aim to reduce “the burdens” UK businesses face, “for example by creating a data protection framework that is focused on privacy outcomes rather than box-ticking”.
In its briefing document, the government said General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Data Protection Act 2018 “are highly complex and prescriptive pieces of legislation”.
A news industry source said of the Data Reform Bill: “I think everyone is scratching their heads over what the actual benefit of it will be.”
The National Security Bill
The government’s briefing document makes no reference to journalists or the media in its explanation of the National Security Bill.
But this piece of legislation, which will amend the Official Secrets Act, has been singled out for concern by press freedom advocates.
The National Union of Journalists says it “could see journalists prosecuted for reporting on information provided by sources, including whistleblowers exposing wrongdoing by government”.
Commenting on the Queen’s Speech generally, NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “For many this programme of legislation will feel like open season against journalists and journalism, and against all those who value the role that human rights and media freedom plays in our democracy. The NUJ will be working hard to see off these challenges to our members and the work they do.”
Photo credit: Daniel Leal/Pool via REUTERS