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'Business as usual' on Section 40 as Government yet to repeal it, says Press Recognition Panel chairman

The chairman of the Press Recognition Panel has said as far as he’s concerned it is “business as usual” on Section 40, which remains on the statute books despite a Government pledge to abolish it.

David Wolfe QC described the amendment to the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which shifts legal costs from claimants on to publishers, as “elegantly double-sided” and a “carefully collaborated set of checks and balances”.

He said it offered protection for publishers signed up to the Royal Charter and low-cost arbitration service for legal challenges, fulfilling recommendations set down by Lord Justice Leveson.

The news industry has strongly opposed Section 40, which would result in publishers not signed up to a Royal Charter-recognised regulator paying both sides’ legal fees in privacy and libel battles, win or lose.

The PRP was set up in 2014 in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry, which delivered its findings two years earlier. It exists to assess press regulators against the Royal Charter and hold them to the 29 criteria.

So far only Impress has applied for recognition under the Royal Charter. The decision to approve the regulator is subject to a judicial review appeal from the News Media Association which is set to be heard in January 2019.

Currently the vast majority of UK newspapers and magazines are members of watchdog the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which launched its own low-cost arbitration scheme earlier this year.

The Government said in March that it would seek to repeal Section 40 “at the earliest opportunity”, having included a pledge to snuff it out in its election manifesto ahead of last year’s snap general election.

But, Wolfe said: “In my point of view it’s business as usual in relation to Section 40. It remains on the statute book, it hasn’t been repealed.”

He said Section 40 had been “kicked along the road” in a “slightly torturous” process, but there was “no parliamentary vehicle in sight” through which it would be repealed.

He pointed out that Section 40 only required a signed commencement order by the Secretary of State to be put into motion.

Pushed by Press Gazette on being out of step with overwhelming news industry opposition to Section 40, Wolfe said the panel’s duty was to “support the operation of the recognition system”.

“Section 40 is bound up with the recognition system we are here to promote,” he said, adding that it would be “inconsistent with our role under the charter to do anything other than support Section 40”.

He said the panel’s aim was to push more regulators to sign up to the Royal Charter.

“We are not here to reflect back opinion on the rights or wrongs of any other of those issues,” he said. “We are simply here to explain the system.”

Wolfe said Section 40 had been “widely misunderstood” and that press opposition to its implementation was “essentially a pushback to the idea of recognition” under the charter, overseen by the PRP.

“The objection is not to Section 40 itself – it’s to the system,” Wolfe told the Protecting The Media conference in London today.

“I think it’s fair to say that the Leveson process is clearly not concluded, but as to how  that’s going to play out in due course is anybody’s guess – it’s [a case of] watch this space.”

Labour has dropped its pursuit of Section 40.

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