Government decision on press regulation looks set to be delayed by intervention from Sir Brian Leveson

The government has indicated a decision on press regulation is set to be delayed until after the intervention of Sir Brian Leveson, head of the original independent inquiry into the press.

Peers at Westminster heard that Leveson has said he would like the opportunity to review the responses to a government consultation on the contentious issue and that this would “take a little time”.

The Conservative administration said it was due to publish its long-awaited response on press regulation – including whether to impose Section 40 and push ahead with part two of the Leveson Inquiry – by Christmas.

News of Leveson’s involvement came at the end of a lengthy, impassioned debate in the House of Lords over moves to impose tighter restrictions on journalists.

Opponents warned the changes being proposed to the Data Protection Bill breached human rights legislation and would have a “chilling effect” on investigative journalism.

However, supporters argued the measures to limit exemptions for journalists over the handling of personal data were in line with what had been proposed by the Leveson Inquiry and stressed the need to safeguard the public against press intrusion.

The public consultation, which was launched last November and ended in January, sought views on Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 – a controversial measure which would see newspapers not signed up to an officially recognised regulator pay their own and their opponent’s legal costs, whether they win or lose in court.

It also asked for views on whether the second part of the Leveson Inquiry, which would look at wrongdoing in the police and press, should proceed.

Responding to the debate in the Lords, Government frontbencher Lord Keen of Elie told peers: “Sir Brian Leveson himself has indicated that he would like the opportunity to consider the responses to the consultation and that will take a little time and of course that has to be accommodated.”

Independent crossbencher Baroness Hollins, who said she had received assistance from the Hacked Off campaign group, said her amendment did “no more than what Lord Justice Leveson recommended – to rebalance data protection law and prevent speculative trawling for stories”.

Lady Hollins, whose family was the victim of press intrusion, argued what she proposed was “a way to protect the free expression rights of publishers and ensure that the public are protected”.

But former Supreme Court justice and independent crossbencher Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood said the change “attempts to tip the balance rather against journalists and others who are seeking to invoke these exemptions”.

Liberal Democrat QC Lord Lester of Herne Hill warned the amendment would put the bill in breach of the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Crossbench peer and leading QC Lord Pannick said: “We should be very slow indeed to limit the scope of the exemptions for journalists and in relation to academic, artistic and literary material.

“Without these exemptions … journalists cannot do their job effectively. You cannot investigate child sex abuse in Rotherham, corruption in Tower Hamlets or any of the other examples that have been given if those you are investigating are entitled to see the data you are processing that relates to them.”

He added: “It would provide a field day for those seeking to impede academic work, artistic and literary expression, and journalism that they do not welcome. It would inevitably create a chilling effect on work in academia, the arts, literature and journalism.”

Lord Pannick argued it could “seriously damage freedom of expression in this country”.

Labour former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott, who was a victim of phone hacking, said: “The amendment is a small step forward and there is a long way to go yet, without a doubt.

“These threats to press freedom are not coming from the politicians but from the press, and it is about time we took account of that.”

Tory peer and Telegraph Media Group executive director Lord Black of Brentwood argued the proposed measures would “cripple investigative journalism”.

He said: “Above all, they would create a deeply repressive data protection regime for all those involved in journalistic, academic, literary and artistic activities.

“It is not only journalists on national newspapers who are so clearly targeted by these amendments, who would be punished, but the local press, broadcasters, academics, film producers, playwrights, book producers and many others.”

Former Downing Street aide and Times columnist Baroness Cavendish of Little Venice said: “I find myself standing in this chamber, which has historically been a bastion of freedom, and looking at a series of largely well-meaning amendments that would amount to a shift towards presumption of privacy, which would protect precisely the kind of vested interests that I have spent part of my career challenging.”

Tory peer and Times political columnist Lord Finkelstein argued the proposed changes were an attack on free speech that “tilt the balance against investigative journalism, against scrutiny of the powerful, against legitimate inquiry”.

He added: “The attempts to hijack bills to bully the press into compliance is a diversion from the public interest and there is no public pressure for it at all.

“Of course it is right to insist on high standards of behaviour but to introduce amendments designed to help powerful people to keep secrets and to make free publication harder is an odd position for liberals.”

Opposition spokesperson Lord Stevenson of Balmacara said: “This debate is not about free speech; it is the latest exchange in a long-running debate on how in a democratic society we enshrine the press’s freedom to publish as it sees fit, to root out the culture of abuse, illegality and criminality which has for too long involved all the newspapers at some point or other, and to make sure that victims can get effective redress when such abuse happens. We should not lose sight of those cardinal aims.”

He added: “We need to do this properly; we need to do it coolly and with some consideration.”

Lord Keen said: “The Government supports objective high quality journalism and a free press … but of course we also need a fair system. This bill is designed to strike a fair balance between individual privacy rights and the right to freedom of expression.”

He said the changes put forward “would be effectively destructive of journalistic freedom”.

Lady Hollins withdrew her amendment, saying she would await the outcome of the consultation.

As she did so, Lord Prescott could be heard to shout “not content, terrible”.

Picture: Shutterstock

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