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Global Witness, tech website The Register and The Independent add their voices to campaign against Section 40

By Dominic Ponsford

Trade website The Register and human rights group Global Witness have both warned that their work would be curbed by Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act.

Non-regulated news website The Independent has condemned Royal Charter-backed regulator Impress and added its voice – in a leader comment – to those condemning Section 40 as a curb on journalism.

Writing in the New Statesman senior legal manager for Global Witness Nicola Namdjou said: “Global Witness exists to shine a light on corruption and on environmental and human rights abuses. As we say – find the facts, expose the story, change the system.

“In our investigations into the oil industry, deforestation, blood diamonds and other practices that have the potential to ruin lives and the planet, we employ researchers and journalists, and we publish our findings.

“It’s a bizarre and ill thought-through provision, which assumes fault on the side of the publisher. This may be tempting for those who want to see the excesses of the tabloid press reigned in, but it’s not just the tabloid press who will suffer. Organisations such as Global Witness must factor in potential court actions into any of our work: if we had to factor in the other sides costs, we would have to think twice about our work.

Gareth Corfield writing for tech website The Register said: “It’s not even a question of risk versus reward: we bear all of the risks, and all of the costs, of any vexatious complaint made. A complainant with a chip on his shoulder could drag us through the courts without being liable for a penny himself.

“Even stories like our ones about the King’s College London IT meltdown would be caught by Section 40. We have had people representing King’s phoning up all manner of people from across El Reg making loads of hilarious and utterly unjustifiable demands, from editing accurate details to deleting the whole series of stories outright.

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“Can you imagine what would happen if King’s had been armed with Section 40? A public institution would have been in a position to strong-arm us into not writing about their screw ups by using the threats, explicit or implied, of being able to use limitless public funds to hire expensive lawyers and effectively drain us of cash until we caved in. That is the blunt truth about what will happen if Section 40 is commenced.”

Toby Evans writing in The Spectator warned that the magazine (and website) would become a “very different beast” if Section 40 was passed.

He said: “Nineteen years ago I was threatened with a libel suit by Harold Evans because of an article I’d written in the Spectator about his departure as president of the New York publishing company Random House. Via his solicitors, Evans threatened to sue me for libel unless I paid his legal costs, gave a sum of money to charity and signed an undertaking that I would never write about him again.

“I can’t claim to have been a high-minded journalist taking on a corrupt businessman. It was more of a Mickey-taking piece, pointing out that the former Sunday Times editor, once a titan of British journalism, had become a humourless, self-important twit since marrying Tina Brown and moving to the US.

“The article was accurate and well-sourced but, being a freelance hack, I was in no position to fight the case. On the other hand, I was reluctant to sign his gagging order, particularly as he wanted me to promise never to write about his wife as well. It was the hypocrisy that really stuck in my craw. Evans presents himself as a champion of free speech yet here he was, trying to use Britain’s libel laws to silence a pesky gadfly.

“Luckily for me, Evans made a mistake – he went after the Spectator too. In a separate letter to the editor, he threatened to sue the magazine for libel unless it promised never to repeat the allegations in my article, published an apology and also paid a sum of money to charity.

“The editor – with the blessing of Conrad Black – decided to jointly defend the claims and promised to pick up all the legal bills. That meant I could safely ignore all of Evans’s demands and a few weeks later he dropped the case.

“If section 40 is activated, the Spectator will inevitably become a very different beast. It doesn’t matter how defiant the magazine’s editorial staff are, the new rules will render its contributors vulnerable to being individually targeted.”

The Daily Mirror today warned in a leader column: “Every fat cat tax dodger, corrupt MP, gangland Mr Big, dangerous doctor or vexatious two-bit chancer would exploit to the full a gift-wrapped present from politicians still resenting exposure of their Westminster expenses scandal.

“It would spell the end of investigative ­journalism if a crook plotting to hide wrongdoing could launch a court action and be refunded even if they lost.

“Had this monstrous injustice been in force we might never have learned of terrible scandals such as the child sex ­exploitation by taxi driver gangs in Rotherham.”

Hundreds of leader columns and comment pieces have been written in recent weeks urging the Goverment to repeal Section 40.

National news agency PA has made its own submission to the Government urging it to scrap Section 40.

Pete Clifton, Editor-in-Chief of PA, said: “The implementation of Section 40 would be ruinous for the media, particularly our precious local press, and anyone who believes in the freedom of the press in the UK should raise their voice in protest.”

The consultation on whether to scrap it, keep it on ice, enact it in full (or in part) concludes at 5pm today.

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