The Government-funded Press Recognition Panel has been accused of breaching Cabinet Office guidelines by lobbying members of the House of Lords to change the law in its favour.
Press trade body the News Media Association has written to Minister for the Constitution Chris Skidmore to complain about what it sees as a misuse of public money.
The PRP was set up in 2015 with public funding of £3m to assess whether or not press regulators met the criteria set out in the Royal Charter on press regulation which was agreed by Parliament in 2013.
So far only Impress has applied for, and achieved, recognition from the PRP. It now has to pay the PRP a recognition fee of £220,000 a year.
Royal Charter recognition means Impress members will benefit from significant potential savings in libel and privacy litigation if Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act (currently the subject of a government review) is commenced.
On 28 October PRP chief executive David Wolfe (pictured above) wrote to every member of the House of Lords urging them to amend the Data Protection Bill to change the journalistic exemption criteria.
The draft bill stated that journalists signed up to the IPSO Editors’ Code should be exempt from being defined as data controllers under the bill.
Wolfe suggested that the wording should be changed so that the Impress, rather than IPSO, code was included in the bill. The vast majority of UK newspaper and magazine publishers are signed up to IPSO rather than Impress.
Wolfe said in a briefing note for Lords: “It is the PRP’s contention that ‘Any standards code adopted by an approved regulator, as defined by the Crime and Courts Act 2013’ should be added to the list. This wording should be used, rather than name a specific approved regulator…
“The basis on which Parliament would choose to include the IPSO Editors’ Code of Practice as a separate category on this list above is unclear to the PRP.”
The News Media Association said in its letter of complaint: “This exemption permits journalists to carry out important investigations, such as the Paradise Papers, without having to obtain the consent of those investigated to the use of their data.”
The NMA said that the PRP is effectively a public body and added: “Cabinet Office guidelines state that the communications of public bodies must be relevant to their responsibilities; objective and explanatory; and that public bodies do not and are not perceived to engage in political lobbying.”
It said this attempt by the PRP to change the legislation was “clearly political lobbying”.
And it said the PRP was seeking to pre-empt the findings of the Government’s review of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act.
The NMA said: “By attempting to get itself written into the face of the Bill and its rival system written out, the PRP’s intervention would have the effect of pre-empting and frustrating the Government review.
“This effort to entrench its role can only have been funded by public money and yet it would appear to be precisely the sort of self-serving, lobbying activity that the Cabinet Office rules were drawn up to prevent.”
The PRP lobbying appears to have been successful.
Lib Dem peers Lord Clement-Jones and Lord McNally have proposed amendments to the Data Protection Act that would remove the IPSO Editors’ Code of Practice from the list of standards that journalists have to be signed up to should they wish to be protected when using private information in public interest stories.
A further amendment put forward by the crossbench peer Lord Skidelsky seeks to add the Impress standards code to the bill.
If this goes ahead, 1,500 print publications and 1,100 websites signed up to IPSO would lose data protection exemptions they have under the current Data Protection Act.
It would mean that, among other things, the targets of journalistic investigations could demand access to all information held on them by issuing journalists with Subject Access Requests.
The amendments are due to be considered when the bill gets to the report stage at the House of Lords later this year.
Press Gazette put the NMA’s concerns to PRP chair David Wolfe.
He said: “The PRP was established by a royal charter and is entirely independent. Part of the PRP’s role is ensuring stakeholders are informed about the new system of press regulation that was agreed by Parliament following the Leveson Inquiry. We operate transparently and publish our correspondence and briefings on our website.
“Our briefing to peers explains that omitting the post-Leveson system of regulation from the Data Protection Bill would undermine Parliament’s original intentions, and mean that ordinary people continue to be denied access to justice when they are wronged by the press.
“We continue to act in accordance with our governing charter. This secures our independence from Government and other political interference.”