By Nathan Sparkes
Yesterday in the House of Commons the Government was skewered over its plans to allow extremists or dictators to set up front organisations in the UK and brand themselves “news publishers”, to benefit from a wide ranging and poorly drafted exemption to the Online Safety Bill. Several newspapers have rushed to defend the loophole because they themselves would benefit from it.
In theory, the Online Safety Bill should protect the public from encountering harmful content on social media.
But a dangerous loophole has been put into the bill, to protect the interests of the national press. This is a complete exemption for all news publishers, meaning they will be able to post onto social media without accountability for what they say.
This exemption is designed to exempt posts on newspaper websites from independent regulation – something that has always terrified the press. But, in practice the exemption goes much further. It will exempt any organisation from regulation by Ofcom provided it has a UK office and meets a handful of other vague and undemanding requirements.
A legal opinion read out in the House of Commons yesterday confirmed that Russia Today would be likely to benefit from this exemption.
Indeed, a dictator from anywhere could set up a front organisation in the UK and brand themselves a “recognised news publisher” and, under the terms of the bill, could make themselves exempt from regulation on social media.
MPs were told,
“A number of far-right websites have made white supremacist claims and praised Holocaust deniers. Those websites already meet several of the criteria for exemption and could meet the remaining criteria overnight.”
In fact, by making a UK address one of the few criteria for accessing the exemption, the bill is actively incentivising publishers of hatred and disinformation to set up shop in the UK in order to be exempt from social media regulation.
The Government had no answer to these concerns, saying little more than they had done their “best”.
Challenged on why the Government doesn’t simply require news publishers to be regulated to access the exemption, the Government said,
“We have reached the philosophical position that statutory or mandatory regulation of the press is incompatible with press freedom.”
Philosophical or otherwise, the position is nonsense.
Firstly, only independent regulation can protect freedom of the press. An ineffective body like the voluntary press complaints-handler IPSO, which is directly run by an industry-appointed politician undermines public confidence in the press (which remains among the lowest in the world). Without independent regulation the only resort available to victims of press abuse is litigation which, inevitably, has a negative effect on press freedom.
Secondly, the bill already requires broadcast media to be regulated in order to exempt – why should press be treated differently from the broadcast media? And thirdly, the whole bill regulates what we as ordinary citizens will be able to say online, with no exemption for us. So much for our “freedom”.
Just to spell it out: it is the Government’s philosophical position that national newspapers deserve greater freedom of speech than the public, and other media, and that the way to protect their freedom of speech is to allow a politician to run their complaints-handler.
The debate ended without a vote, but with the Government having thoroughly lost the argument.
The press rushes to defend the “extremists’ loophole”
In the wake of the debate, the press has rushed to defend this exemption, which hands extremists and dictators the right to spread disinformation and hatred online with impunity.
The Daily Mail and The Times have both published articles about the debate making claims which are either misleading or plainly false.
They are on the side of the dictators and extremists, so long as it means no accountability for them.
n its defence of its own complaints-handling arrangements, The Times comments, “IPSO is acknowledged to have worked well”. This is untrue.
Hacked Off research has found that only 0.3% of IPSO complaints are upheld in full. So yes, it is working well for the press, but not the public.
We know from the history of debates on press regulation that the national press will do anything to avoid accountability.
But to defend a loophole as dangerous and damaging as this is a new low.
All this loophole does for the press is ensure that what they post on social media is not affected by rules to keep the public safe.
Yet rather than accept that, newspapers would sooner see dictators from hostile foreign states, racists and other extremists inflict harm on the country’s citizens online.
For now, the bill is unchanged.
But there is a long way to go before the bill becomes law, and there is no doubt that Government and the press have already lost the argument.