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December 13, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 8:43am

Tory election win may prompt cheers from national press but fears from broadcasters

By Dominic Ponsford

Many political journalists have cursed Boris Johnson’s Conservatives for an ultra stage-managed campaign which gave little opportunity for them to do their jobs and subject them to scrutiny.

But those in the national press and wider non-broadcast media at least have some reason to welcome a Conservative win.

Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which has been hanging like the sword of Damocles over the news industry since 2013, will now almost certainly be repealed (as per the Tory manifesto).

It was never commenced, but would have been under a Labour government.

It would have made membership of a press regulator which was compliant with the Royal Charter on the Regulation of the Press obligatory for all serious news publishers.

Section 40 states that news providers must pay both sides’ legal costs in libel and privacy actions, win or lose, unless they are members of a Royal Charter-backed press regulator – currently only Impress.

Publishers wanting to pursue any sort of investigative journalism would thus find themselves forced to sign up to such a regulator or else risk paying out millions in legal costs every time they pursued a legally contentious story.

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The vast majority of national and regional newspapers in the UK are regulated by the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which is not Royal Charter-compliant, while others are self-regulating.

Signing up to a press regulator that has been created by Parliament spells the end of press freedom as we know it for many journalists at a philosophical level.

At a practical level there are concerns that some aspects of the Royal Charter scheme – a libel and privacy disputes arbitration scheme which is free for complainants – could place an impossible financial burden on small specialist magazines and websites as well as the local press.

The repeal of Section 40 will mean that eight years after the publication of the Leveson Report we have a press regulator in IPSO which has stronger powers than its predecessor, but which falls short of the legally-backed system which Sir Brian Leveson set out in his report.

Impress will continue as long as Max Mosley has money to fund it, but looks unlikely to ever attract a major national news organisation as a member.

Broadcast journalists, however, have reason to be a little nervous about the Conservative victory.

Humiliated by the BBC’s Andrew Neil and Channel 4 News over his debate and interview no-shows – could Boris Johnson be petty and venal enough to exact revenge over both state-backed broadcasters?

After being replaced by a block of ice in the Channel 4 climate change debate a Tory source told journalists the party would “look at whether its remit should be better focused so it is serving the public in the best way possible”.

Channel 4’s licence runs until the end of 2024 and it would be well within the powers of Johnson’s majority Conservative government to change the legislation which underpins its existence.

Speaking at a rally in Sunderland this week, Johnson questioned how much longer the BBC “tax” could be justified.

The licence fee costs £154.50 per household per year and contributes £3.7bn a year to the BBC’s coffers.

They say revenge is a dish best served cold, but with the current BBC charter due to stay in place until 2027 any action to change the corporation’s funding model would be reliant on Johnson winning a further term in office.

Picture: Reuters/Hannah Mckay

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