02:26, December 24 197 0 theguardian.com

2017-12-24 02:26:03
Public interest journalism faces a serious threat from Paradise

The Paradise Papers investigation into the dubious tax schemes of the world’s wealthiest inhabitants involved 96 media organisations across 67 countries. Appleby, the offshore law firm at the heart of the story, has launched breach-of-confidence proceedings against just two: the Guardian and the BBC.

Appleby has not suggested that the stories about tax havens and abuses aren’t true. After a statement that it was “obliged to take legal action in order to ascertain what information has been stolen” it has made no further comment. So one can only surmise that Appleby rates its chances of convincing a British court to find in its favour.

With the bar for journalists to prove public interest in the UK higher than in many other jurisdictions, the case could prove a litmus test for the protections offered for genuine public interest journalism. All while other protections – exemptions for use of data, for example – are under threat.

The Paradise Papers revelations prompted worldwide anger and debate over an important issue. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is concerned not just by the blow to free expression in the UK but also by Appleby’s demand that the consortium’s two British members hand over 6 million documents – demands that could endanger the life and wellbeing of sources. The Guardian has said that it will defend itself vigorously against the claims.

As this battle to protect free expression commences, an older one returns to parliament on 10 January, when a bill that could further erode journalism exemptions returns to the Lords. In essence, amendments made to the data protection bill would give primacy to privacy over freedom of expression when it comes to the use of personal information.

Described as a “compromise” between the rights of a free press and victims of press abuse by Baroness Hollins, who tabled the amendment, a weakening of laws meant to protect genuine journalistic endeavours would be an awful way to start 2018. British protection is bad enough as it is.