Alastair Campbell: Misguided Lords will damage real local journalism

Alastair Campbell
Alastair Campbell
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Alastair Campbell was and remains one of the fiercest critics of the Press during and post-Leveson. Here the Yorkshire-born journalist, author and communications strategist warns of a legislative bridge too far...

I have had plenty of run-ins with the Press in my time. At the Leveson Inquiry, I said some very trenchant things about the way some of our national press behaved, and have been disappointed that Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations have not been implemented.

But I was at pains to point out there is much good amid the bad, and I would put some of the country’s quality regional newspapers - and their websites - in that mix.

I was born and spent the first eleven years of my life in Yorkshire, so The Yorkshire Post was part and parcel of my childhood. You couldn’t live there and not be aware of its role in the community, and when as a young adult I went on to work for local and regional newspapers myself, that awareness deepened and became more personal.

Often papers like the Post will celebrate notable achievements: successes at schools, fundraising initiatives, and individual tales of triumph over adversity. They bring out the best in us; they encourage and inspire. That type of journalism undoubtedly makes us all feel better about ourselves, and those around us. It improves communities, and so society.

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Of course, any newspaper worth its salt will have at its core the propensity to scrutinise without fear or favour; warn its readers of any potential harm and fiercely defend those living in its cities, towns, villages and hamlets - especially the most vulnerable in our society. This paper has taken a lead in the debate on Loneliness with its Hidden Epidemic campaign, for example.

There is much that is wrong about our traditional national press. But the real threat to papers like the Post comes from the tech giants. And whatever the intentions of amendments to the Data Protection Bill going through the Lords, the impact will be to make life much more difficult for papers like the Post to survive against the duopoly of Google and Facebook.

If we are not careful, papers that have served their communities with the emphasis on that word - community - will wither, while the tech giants continue to grow in profit and power, but with little focus on or concern for places like Yorkshire. Here is the issue: currently, newspapers are only able properly to carry out their journalism thanks to an exemption in data protection legislation which enables them to publish details of local people involved in local events, report the day to day work of local organisations and carry out investigations on your behalf.

It is of course right that people traduced by the Press have right of redress, but this proposed tightening of data protection laws is wide open to abuse. At the moment, this exemption helps papers like this one. But the proposed amendment to the Bill supported by the Lords risks leaving local and regional news publications with the often considerable costs of any legal attempt against them, even if the reports published are entirely compliant with the legislation and in the public interest. There is a real danger this tilts the balance too far.

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Newspapers like this one, and their rapidly-growing digital editions, are already operating in a tough environment. This will make it tougher and adds the risk of self-censorship. The threat of having to pay both sides' costs - no matter what the challenge - would have the effect of leaving journalists questioning every report that named an individual or included the most innocuous data about them. Rather than the editor of this newspaper and others asking: is this report fair, accurate, without malice and in the public interest, he or she will rather have to first and foremost ask: am I likely to be sued by someone offended by this piece of journalism, even though it is absolutely in the best interests of the majority of right-minded residents? That is not a good basis on which to run a community-focused regional newspaper.

So why have the Lords have taken us to this point? My concern is that their rightful anger and disgust at the activities of some in the national press has led them into areas that will damage newspapers who were nowhere near the criminal wrongdoing that so repelled the nation.

They appear to have insufficient awareness of how local newsrooms on a vital community title produce public interest journalism - nor an appreciation of the asphyxiating financial constraints that they work under in a digital age.

Moreover, they do not seem to have grasped that in an internet context - where global social media and non-newspaper publishers are entirely exempt from all of this - that their focus is in the wrong place.

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Let’s be clear: the newspapers that will be most affected by this proposed change to the Data Protection Bill never hacked phones nor did anything illegal.

Good, honest, proper journalism is a craft that must be cherished and preserved otherwise the very fabric of our communities risks being unpicked. Of course, even that type of journalism, for which the Post is famous, requires credible, robust regulation and IPSO is yet to demonstrate to anyone that it is capable of regulating the disparate parts of the Press properly and to the standards the public, post-Leveson, expects. However, this is not the right way to go about it.

When this amendment comes back to the Commons, MPs should know the strength of feeling. So I urge you to write to them and tell them that this risks damaging the future of a paper you love and the community in which you live.

By Alastair Campbell