Helensburgh SNP’s Brendan O’Hara champions press freedom in Commons debate

O'Hara Brendan and Nicola Sturgeon 2

Helensburgh MP Brendan O’Hara with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture by Kevin McGlynn

Helensburgh MP Brendan O’Hara has spoken out in Westminister in support of a call for  anti-media clauses to be scrapped to safeguard press freedom and democracy.

A former journalist, Mr O’Hara took part in a debate at the Second Reading of the Data Protection Bill in the House of Commons when MPs from across the political spectrum expressed concern about Clause 168.

The SNP MP said: “As the Secretary of State is well aware, both SNP Members and the Scottish Government are extremely concerned about clause 168, which concerns section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. Clause 168 was inserted in the other place (House of Lords) and impinges on areas wholly devolved to the Scottish Parliament.”

That the burden the amendments would have on local media was raised by Peter Heaton-Jones MP who said: “Freedom of the press is absolutely essential in a democracy. Let us think carefully about what section 40 says: if a paper not under the auspices of a Press Recognition Panel regulator is sued for defamation, for instance, it has to pay the legal costs of both sides, even if it wins the case. How can that be sensible? We might argue that that is a pretty blunt instrument with the intention of coercing newspapers to sign up to one of the approved regulators, but 90% of the national press have not done so, so the blunt instrument is clearly not being effective.

“The biggest danger, however, is that many small, local media companies, such as those in my constituency that I have mentioned, would simply not be able to run a viable business if section 40 were enacted. Financially, the court costs would cripple them. Individuals could make vexatious claims in the knowledge that there was no chance of their ever having to pay costs, whatever the outcome. That is simply something up with which we will not put.”

The debate came in a week when it was revealed that circulation figures for local newspapers in West Dunbartonshire and Helensburgh have plummeted.

The official Lennox Herald figure released by ABC (the Audit Bureau of Circulation) is just over 5,000 while the Helensburgh Advertiser is below 4,000 and the Dumbarton and Vale of Leven Reporter is below 2,000.

Figures for the same newspapers 20 years ago were around  14,000 for the Lennox Herald, 9,000 for the Helensburgh Advertiser and 8,000 for the Reporter.

Mr Heaton Jones added: “The local press in North Devon and many other parts of the country is still extraordinarily important. The [North Devon Journal, the North Devon Gazette] are still read widely today and help to maintain our sense of community. We cannot face a situation in which such papers are threatened by what could be a series of vexatious claims, encouraged by the fact that there would be no risk to the person making that claim.”

Colin Clark MP noted that Leveson 2 “would be backward-looking, as other Members have said. Regulation has moved on.” Clark argued, “politicians deciding how newspapers should behave is a direct threat to our democracy, of which a free national and local press is an essential component.”

Both John Lamont MP and Mike Wood MP warned that the amendments could lead to a chilling of investigative news and closure of local papers. “The recently set up Hawick Paper or the community-run Eskdale & Liddesdale Advertiser could not afford to risk a case going to court, given the crippling costs that might be involved.

“They would have to stop investigating a story, or print an apology for something that was actually true. The alternative would be going to court and possibly paying the costs, even if they were successful,” said Lamont.

Mike Wood MP cautioned: “All [the amendments] would do is deter proper, quality investigative journalism. It would deter community and local reporting, where, shall we say, conflict within communities is not unheard of. If, when a claim is brought, there is an assumption — not quite but almost without regard to the merits of the case or who the claimant is — that the defendant will have the costs awarded against them, that is an enormous disincentive to continue with a story, even when doing so is clearly in the public interest.”

Labour MP John Grogan said: “We must be very careful about taking this step. We are already 40th in the accepted rankings relating to a free press. We are not even in the top 10, and we should be up there with Norway, which I think is No. 1. We should be very careful about taking these steps. How would Russia Today react if our press organisations were forced into bankruptcy or felt the chilling effect that Alastair Campbell warned against recently?”

Richard Drax MP echoed Mr Grogan: “The press in this country is one of the cornerstones of our freedom and democracy. … What would happen if we started to impede and encroach on the freedom of the press?

“Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 forced newspapers that had not signed up to a state-supported regulator to pay their own and, indeed, their opponent’s legal costs in libel cases, even if they won the case. That is not freedom of the press. It is not even fair law. It is bad law, made on the back of a terrible wrong committed by a very few people in what is generally, across the world, a highly respected business or profession — that is, the press in this country.”

Drax concluded: “I want a free press to hold us, businesses and powerful people — yes, like Mr Mosley — to account. If I were in the wrong, the press would have a right to dig out of me what I had done wrong, even though I might not want them to do so.”

Will Gore neatly summarised that the amendments to the bill “would, at a stroke, empower people in positions of power – and with deep pockets – with the tools they need to stop journalists prying into things that they very much ought to be prying into.

“Fundamentally, the press has a duty to behave responsibly. But it must also be empowered to act in the interests of the public by investigating dodgy deals, murky secrets, hypocrites and charlatans of every sort – and even, should the need arise, the way elected representatives are remunerated beyond their basic salaries.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg MP noted at the second reading that “the freedom of the press and freedom of speech are absolutely at the heart of our democracy. Members of Parliament should remember that those freedoms will be exercised in a way that does not always provide hagiographies for us.

“If we do not have free speech, how will we expose corrupt Governments, incompetent politicians and — I dare say there are some occasionally — Governments who make mistakes? Councils that get things wrong, errors that are made and dishonestys that are performed, how will they be reported if every one of us can shut down our local newspaper just by saying that we will go to court and the newspaper will have double costs?

“The principle is that a free press is one that cannot be regulated by the state, and an application to be approved by a regulator approved by a royal charter is regulation by the state. That is not comparable to the judges or other independent organs of the state, because the judges are part of the state — they are simply independent from this place and from the Executive. The whole point of the press is that it is not in any way part of the state. Quite understandably, no serious newspaper of the left or of the right has been willing to bend the knee to IMPRESS, and nor should it.”

MPs will now consider the Bill in a Public Bill Committee which is scheduled to conclude by Tuesday 27 March 2018, but could finish earlier.

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