Prime minister tells editors: Local press will have ‘fair playing field’

Prime Minister Theresa May
Prime Minister Theresa May
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A government review designed to protect the future of local newspapers may include the creation of a new category to describe the role of Facebook and Google in handling and promoting stories, Prime Minister Theresa May has suggested.

Speaking to members of the Johnston Press editorial board, which oversees The News, Mrs May said the idea would be looked at as part of efforts to create a ‘fair playing field’ for local media when it comes to digital advertising revenue.

In response to a question from Jeremy Clifford, Johnston Press editor-in-chief, about whether she planned to change the way in which Facebook and Google were regulated in the way they curated news stories, Mrs May said: ‘These platforms say “We are just platforms”, others will say “No, you’re not, you’re a publisher”.

‘Maybe there is actually a third category, something else that best describes what they do that starts to find some way in terms of looking at their liability rather than them just being able to say “Well, it’s nothing to do with us”.’

She added: ‘We have to look at how we can properly describe these organisations.’

Mrs May told the meeting, attended by News editor Mark Waldron, that the review wouldbegin next month.

‘The free press is important for our democracy and quality journalism is important for our democracy,’ she said.

Mrs May also confirmed the government remained committed to stopping plans put forward in the House of Lords to make newspapers pay both their and their opponents’ legal costs in relation to alleged privacy breaches.

Similar measures to make newspapers pay the legal costs of both sides in libel and privacy disputes, regardless of whether they win or lose, are included in Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which was passed by Parliament in 2013. But the act is yet to be implemented following outrage at the prospect of newspapers paying huge financial penalties for stories that are true.

With the government indicating last year it was committed to repealing Section 40, the Lords are now seeking to amend the Data Protection Act in what has been described by the News Media Association as ‘a backdoor route to obstruct investigative journalism’.

Mrs May said: ‘I have sat down on a number of occasions with my local paper [in Kent] and have heard from them direct about their concerns that it would have a huge impact on them.

‘We will be looking to overturn the amendment when we get an opportunity.’

Gary Shipton, Johnston Press deputy editor in chief, welcomed Mrs May’s commitment because of his serious concerns about the implications for the local press if the legislation came to pass.

‘It would have a real chilling effect because there is a journalist exemption under data regulation which enables us to carry out investigations but also enables us to report that Mrs Miggins won the raffle at the WI meeting.

‘If there was a Section 40-style costs arrangement, local newspapers would be utterly neutered and made anodyne as a result of that.

‘That is why it is so critical to us.’