Criminals, corrupt business leaders and cheating MPs could avoid being exposed under a fresh assault on Press freedom.
Amendments to the Data Protection Bill going through Parliament would make it easier for the rich and powerful to escape being held to account.
Tabled by Tory peer Earl Attlee and crossbencher Baroness Hollins, the changes would make it harder to carry out investigative journalism and protect the identity of sources who reveal wrongdoing.
Amendments to the Data Protection Bill going through Parliament would make it easier for the rich and powerful to escape being held to account (Pictured, MPs gathered in the House of Commons)
They would affect all publications, from national newspapers and broadcasters including the BBC, to small community newspapers, charities and think-tanks.
Critics also fear that a second raft of amendments is being used as a ‘backdoor route’ to force publishers to join state-approved regulator Impress, which depends on money from the former Formula One boss Max Mosley.
The latest moves threaten 300 years of Press freedom by undermining the principle that journalists have the right to print whatever information they believe is in the public interest, and only answer for it to the courts afterward.
Last night Lord Grade, a former chairman of the BBC and ITV, said: ‘Any legislative move that restricts a journalist’s legitimate inquiries should be opposed. The current laws and codes of conduct are sufficient to protect people from unwarranted intrusion and exposure.
‘One consequence of these amendments is that it could inhibit investigations which are in the public interest.’
The amendments would have hampered probes by the Daily Mail.
These include the long-running campaign to convict the murderers of Stephen Lawrence and its exposure of how BBC TV licence fee collectors were bullying families and how charity fundraisers were hounding pensioners for donations.
The amendments would have hampered probes by the Daily Mail. These include the long-running campaign to convict the murderers of Stephen Lawrence (pictured)
The Bill is aimed at delivering a 21st century data protection regime, including strengthening rights and empowering individuals to have more control over their personal information. Heavy fines would hit organisations that did not safeguard sensitive data.
Crucially, the proposed legislation provides an exemption for journalists who access and store personal information without consent when exposing wrongdoing.
But the amendments would make it easier for individuals to find out what information journalists hold about them – and prevent it being used before any article has even been published.
It would mean that criminal masterminds, terror suspects, paedophiles, rogue business bosses and philandering MPs could hinder and block stories.
The amendments strip out freedom of expression safeguards, and could see the public interest in investigating wrong-doing being trumped by an individual’s right to privacy – a further obstacle to publishing reports the public have a right to read.
Under the existing Bill, as proposed by the Government, the exemption for journalists depends on whether their reporting is in the public interest, as defined by the Ofcom code, the BBC editorial guidelines or the Independent Press Standards Organisation’s Editors’ Code of Practice.
Almost all national and local newspapers, including the Daily Mail, are members of Ipso, which is entirely free of state control and is recognised in other pieces of legislation, including the Data Protection Act.
But some peers want to remove Ipso from the legislation and replace it with Impress, which covers only a handful of hyper-local publications and blogs.
This, coupled with other changes, would make it impossible for the newspapers read by most members of the public to claim full journalistic exemption.
Max Mosley (pictured) has been a vocal supporter of shackles on the Press since being exposed by the News of the World for taking part in a German-themed, S&M orgy with prostitutes
Mr Mosley, who has handed millions to the controversial newspaper regulator, has been a vocal supporter of shackles on the Press since being exposed by the News of the World for taking part in a German-themed, S&M orgy with prostitutes.
A News Media Association spokesman said: ‘The amendments would give powerful claimants with something to hide fresh ammunition to pursue legal claims and shut down legitimate public interest investigation into their activities.’
A Government source said: ‘The Bill has put in place protections that journalists should be able to rely on in going about their legitimate investigatory work, which is so crucial to our democracy.
‘They are vital so that journalists can inform us about the world in which we live, and to effectively hold those in power to account.’
Lord Skidelsky, one of the peers seeking to have Impress’s code of practice recognised in the Bill, is a close friend of Mr Mosley.
The 78-year-old crossbencher and economic historian wrote his first biography on Mr Mosley’s father, the wartime fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley.
The amendments to the Bill, which will come into force next May, will be debated from today.