Tory and Labour MPs unite over threat to press freedom

MPs are gearing up for a Commons battle over press regulation as Labour and the Government clashed over changes introduced by peers.

Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg (North-East Somerset) said the amendments fundamentally attacked the freedom of the press and were an attack on democracy.

Culture Secretary Matt Hancock warned the ability of the press to properly scrutinise should not be undermined by two amendments made to the Data Protection Bill in the House of Lords.

These seek to introduce a 
controversial measure linked to regulation and also back the launch of the second phase of the Leveson Inquiry into press standards. Shadow Culture Secretary Tom Watson said Labour would seek to retain these amendments, with backbench MPs on both sides arguing for and against the measures.

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In January, peers amended the Bill to support an investigation into alleged data protection breaches by the media. They also backed a move which would see newspapers not signed up to a state-supported regulator pay their own and their opponent’s legal costs in relation to alleged data protection breaches, even if they were successful in court.

Mr Hancock last week announced the Government will not put into effect and seek to repeal the controversial measure, which is contained in section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act. He added the Government has also scrapped the second part of the Leveson inquiry, provoking fury from campaigners.

Conservative former Minister John Redwood was among those who said he supported Mr Hancock in removing the Lords amendments despite being somebody who has been on the “wrong end of fake news and misrepresentation many times”.

Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg (North-East Somerset) said the amendments “fundamentally attacked the freedom of the press” and were an “attack on democracy”.

He added: “One of the tactics of dictatorial regimes is to have punitive damages levied on newspapers that do not do what they want, to have a system where if you lose a libel action you are effectively closed down.”

John Grogan, Labour MP for Keighley, also said: “How would it look on Russia Today if press organisations were forced into bankruptcy, and if there was that chilling effect which Alastair Campbell only recently warned against?”

The Bill, which also deals with various data protection issues, was given an unopposed second reading and will undergo further scrutiny at a later date.