Culture Secretary Matt Hancock has taken aim at his Labour counterpart Tom Watson, calling the Labour Shadow Culture Secretary “one of Britain’s foremost conspiracy theorists”.
Speaking at a lunch for journalists in Westminster yesterday, Hancock also criticised Watson’s relationship with prominent press reform campaigner Max Mosley.
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Mosley has faced criticism in recent weeks over a racist political pamphlet from 1961 that was uncovered by the Daily Mail and Channel 4 News and which bears his name as publisher.
Watson has received more than £500,000 in donations from Mosley in the past three years. Both men support Leveson Two and the Section 40 cost sanctions law that would see newspapers not signed up to the Royal Charter pay both sides’ legal fees win or lose.
Currently the only Royal Charter-recognised regulator is Impress, which has fewer than 100 members, while the Independent Press Standards Organisation – which has said it will not sign up to the Royal Charter – regulates the vast majority of newspapers and magazines in the UK.
According to a report of the lunch in the Daily Mail, Hancock said: “In my view, it is only someone like Tom Watson who would think that it is a good idea to put Max Mosley in charge of regulating the Jewish Chronicle.
“It is a great irony of modern politics, Tom is one of Britain’s foremost conspiracy theorists, and when a real conspiracy comes along – like the Trotskyites taking over the Labour Party – he does not even notice.”
Hancock also used the lunch to reiterate his support for the free press.
He said: “The thought of a state-regulated British press under the sinister threats of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell does not bear thinking about.
“It would mean a public that is less informed, less inspired and less able to keep the powerful to account. How dare they threaten the free Press with their own misguided goals.
“‘I for one will defend the free press with everything I have got. So you should get out there and find the stories, find the objective reality, make sure that you print it without fear or favour, and fight for the freedom you have held dear for so long, and with that I will be by your side.”
He added: “Nationally and locally a Press that can hold the powerful to account is an essential component of our democracy… You have a powerful role in this and I want to see a stronger, more sustainable Press, confident in saying this fact is false and this fact is true.”
Hancock has also said the revelations about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have marked a “turning point” in people’s attitudes to their online data, according to the Press Association.
He said he understood why people were deleting their accounts with the social media giant and also promised that the UK’s Information Commissioner would be given beefed-up powers.
But the data watchdog has yet to be granted a warrant to search CA’s computers as part of its current investigation and Hancock acknowledged that the “system isn’t good enough” at present.
A High Court judge today adjourned the Information Commissioner’s Office application for a warrant until tomorrow.
Hancock told a Westminster lunch: “After this week’s revelations I think it is time that social media platforms come clean with what data they really hold on people.”
He added: “I have actually been worrying for quite some time about this sort of problem.
“We didn’t know the details of the revelations that came out at the weekend but the Information Commissioner already had an investigation to get to the bottom of these sorts of problems.
“It is clear to me that the rules need to be strengthened to make sure that she has the enforcement powers that we need.”
Facebook’s boss Mark Zuckerberg said last night that it was a mistake to rely on CA to delete tens of millions of Facebook users’ data as he apologised for the “major breach of trust”.
The political consultancy had provided formal assurances that information harvested from 50m profiles had been destroyed after Facebook first learned of the breach in 2015, he said.
Zuckerberg set out a series of measures to toughen up the site’s policies, said he was now open to Facebook being regulated, and accepted that malign actors were trying to use the social network for political ends.
But the Culture Secretary said it should not be up to individual sites to decide how to respond as he highlighted plans to strengthen data law.
Hancock – who has faced privacy concerns over his own social media app for constituents – said the Data Protection Bill would strengthen the rules.
“I think this week has marked a turning point in people’s attitude towards the big platforms,” he said.
“You can’t just let the companies decide what is the balance between privacy and use of data and innovation. That is a decision for society, reflected in the laws that we pass here.”
Facebook has seen billions of US dollars wiped off its market value following the row involving CA, which is accused of using the data to help Donald Trump’s US presidential campaign target political ads on the platform.
CA has denied using Facebook data in its work on the campaign and added: “We’re committed to being responsible, fair and secure with data.
“We’ll be working with everyone – Facebook, independent auditors and the ICO – as their investigations continue.”
Meanwhile, the firm’s suspended chief executive, Alexander Nix, has been called to appear before MPs once again following this week’s allegations about its use of Facebook user data.
Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee chairman wrote to Nix telling him that there were “a number of inconsistencies” in the evidence given on his appearance on February 27, “notably your denial that your company received data from the Global Science Research company”.
He added: “We are also interested in asking you again about your claim that you ‘do not work with Facebook data, and […] do not have Facebook data’.”
The letter continued: “You agreed at the 27 February session to send a series of further follow-up answers; we have not received these. We call on you to answer them now.”
Collins warned: “Giving false statements to a Select Committee is a very serious matter.”
He requested a response by Tuesday.
The CA scandal has also prompted calls from politicians on both sides of the Atlantic for Zuckerberg to answer to them in person for the breach and led to an online campaign for people to delete their profiles.
Hancock said: “Of course I understand why people are deleting Facebook accounts.
“Without trust people will understandably continue to remove their Facebook accounts and without transparency over how data is used there can be no trust.”
Yesterday, Zuckerberg made his first public statement since the controversy erupted – via a Facebook post.
Journalists at the Guardian had told Facebook in 2015 that Aleksandr Kogan, a Cambridge University psychology researcher, had shared data from an app he had developed with CA, he said.
Facebook immediately banned Dr Kogan’s app and demanded that he and CA delete the data, for which they provided “certifications” that they had, Zuckerberg said.
Last week the Observer, the New York Times and Channel 4 News alerted Facebook that that CA may not have deleted the data as they had said, and the firm was banned from Facebook.
The personality survey created by Dr Kogan – who claims he has been made a “scapegoat” by Facebook and CA – was installed by about 300,000 people, Zuckerberg said.
Facebook’s settings at the time allowed developers to access the personal data of not just the people who used their app, but of all their friends as well – leading to information being gathered on tens of millions of people.
Facebook will now ban developers who do not agree to an audit, and an app’s developer will no longer have access to data from people who have not used that software in three months.
Picture: Reuters/Hannah McKay