STEPHEN GLOVER: A chilling new threat to Britain’s free Press 

STEPHEN GLOVER: Max Mosley’s chum Tom Watson and a chilling new threat to Britain’s free Press 

Will MPs vote tomorrow to hasten the State control of newspapers? The question may seem strange to many people, who naturally assume that a free Press is one of the foundations of British democracy.

But I’m afraid such a belief can no longer be taken for granted. A recent report by the World Press Freedom Index claimed that Britain has the second-worst record in Western Europe. We rank 40th in the world, below Ghana (23) and South Africa (28).

If enough MPs get their way tomorrow, in a few years’ time we will have sunk even further down the list, and be rubbing shoulders with such beacons of democracy and champions of a free Press as China and Putin’s Russia. I do not jest.

The new assault on Press freedom comes chiefly — but not entirely — from Labour after a cross-section of peers introduced amendments to the Government’s Data Protection Bill, which has been wending its way through Parliament.

Since, these days, so much information is held in the form of data, the Bill offers an opportunity for the enemies of a free Press to clamp down on newspapers. Step forward Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party

Since, these days, so much information is held in the form of data, the Bill offers an opportunity for the enemies of a free Press to clamp down on newspapers. Step forward Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party.

This is the same Tom Watson who has accepted £540,000 in donations from the former motor racing boss Max Mosley, himself an enthusiast for state-backed regulation after being exposed by the now defunct News of the World for taking part in an S&M orgy with prostitutes.

The Mail recently dramatically revealed Mosley’s racist past. It found a 1961 pamphlet in his name which stated that ‘coloured immigrants’ spread disease. It also discovered that, for several years after this abomination, he continued to support South Africa’s extreme apartheid regime.

Only weeks before his reprehensible youthful past came to light, Mosley’s lawyers had written to various national newspapers, including this one, demanding that they delete articles containing references to his 2008 orgy (which he had previously described as ‘perfectly harmless’) from their databases. You can see the kind of man he is.

To return to Tom Watson. One might have hoped the shocking disclosures about his benefactor’s former racist affiliations would have drawn forth some reproving remarks. Not a bit of it. Nor has Watson softened his campaign to rein in newspapers.

Tomorrow he intends to introduce an amendment that echoes the much criticised Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which Culture Secretary Matt Hancock has refused to implement.

Watson’s amendment would force newspapers not signed up to the State-approved regulator Impress — which means every national title and nearly all local ones — to pay all the legal costs in data protection cases even if they were judged to be in the right.

In other words, if Watson has his way, newspapers will have a stark choice. Either they join Impress — or face paying the costs of dodgy businessmen, corrupt officials and dishonest politicians whose wrongdoing has been established. Local newspapers, many of which are financially weak, would be especially at risk, though Watson’s amendment proposes an escape route for the poorest.

Not only is it approved by the State, it is also almost entirely funded, to the tune of nearly £1 million a year, by Tom Watson’s poisonous friend, Max Mosley

Preposterous? I believe it is, and all the more so if you consider the nature of Impress. Not only is it approved by the State, it is also almost entirely funded, to the tune of nearly £1 million a year, by Tom Watson’s poisonous friend, Max Mosley.

That’s not quite the end of this incredible tale. Watson has also inserted an ingenious but outrageous provision which would have the effect of exempting the (usually Labour-supporting) Guardian and Observer from the punishment meted out to other newspapers that shun Impress.

It’s hard to believe all this is going on in what we supposed was the land of liberty, where the freedom of the Press seemed, at least until recently, to be assured.

Antony White, QC, a leading media lawyer, provides some reassurance in his written opinion that Watson’s amendment, if enacted, would be struck down by the courts.

This is what he writes: ‘It is a fundamental principle of public law that it is unlawful to punish a person who has done nothing wrong.’ That means, in his opinion, a vindicated newspaper could not be forced to pay the costs of an unsuccessful litigant. Let’s hope he’s right.

Can MPs conceivably support Watson’s sordid little amendment? It seems hard to credit, but we certainly shouldn’t rule it out. Some Scottish Nationalist MPs are thought to be considering which way to vote. A handful of Tories might back Watson, while a few Labour MPs could vote against him.

But even if good sense and love of Press freedom prevail, which I pray they will, there is another danger tomorrow, in its way even more serious. An amendment has been tabled by the former Labour leader Ed Miliband which would establish a new statutory inquiry into all media organisations, whether print, broadcast or online.

Ed Miliband is no friend to a free Press. In March 2013 he chaired a meeting in his Commons office which reached a deal paving the way to State-backed supervision of newspapers in the form of the officially approved regulator, Impress.

Also present at that dubious gathering were the then Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, Labour’s Lord Falconer, four members of the anti-Press lobby group Hacked Off — and, belatedly, an ineffectual and apparently poorly briefed Oliver Letwin on behalf of the Government. No representatives of any newspaper were there.

So it is hardly surprising that this old adversary of a Free Press should be tabling an amendment tomorrow designed to make life more difficult for newspapers. Undoubtedly surprising — and to me disappointing — is that the veteran Tory MP Ken Clarke should have put his name to the amendment. This suggests that some other Conservatives may vote for it.

Why on earth is another inquiry into the Press and the rest of the media required? Newspapers and their methods were exhaustively examined by Lord Justice Leveson in 2011 and 2012.

Most of them have subsequently signed up to IPSO, a much tougher independent regulator than its predecessor, which only last week got most national newspapers to sign up to a compulsory arbitration scheme that could force them to pay up to £60,000 to victims of defamation, harassment or invasion of privacy.

What seems to be envisaged by Ed Miliband and his allies is a sprawling investigation which would cover some of the same ground as Leveson before entering uncharted waters.

Such a root-and-branch inquiry, involving as it would several members of the great and the good, and doubtless taking many months, would in all likelihood produce recommendations damaging to free speech. One can be reasonably sure, given his track record, that this is Ed Miliband’s expectation.

Decent Labour MPs and their sympathisers in other parties should step back and examine their consciences. If what is proposed here — heavy costs for newspapers that have done no wrong; exemption for favourable titles; a new comprehensive investigation — were threatened in supposedly illiberal Poland or Hungary, there would be a furore in this country, and rightly so.

Why, then, can it be allowed to happen in Britain? The point about a free Press is that it is free. Most people may take it for granted, but they won’t thank politicians who try to dismantle it, and risk undermining our ancient liberties.

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