Culture Secretary Karen Bradley has acknowledged the threat that Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act presents to a “vibrant free local press”.
And according to The Sun, the Government has decided not to support the measure.
The law was passed by Parliament in 2013 but has yet to be commenced.
It states that publishers who are not part of a Royal Charter-backed press regulator would face paying both sides’ costs in libel and privacy cases – even if they win.
For the law to work, there needs to be the option of joining a press regulator which is compliant with the Parliament-backed Royal Charter on press regulation.
Alternative press regulator Impress will find out today from the government-funded Press Recognition Panel if it meets the Royal Charter criteria. IPSO, which regulators most UK newspaper and magazine publishers, has not sought PRP approval.
Over the last week there has been a wave of editorials across the national and regional press urging the Government to scrap Section 40. Many have pointed out that the financial penalties it imposes on non Royal Charter-regulated publishers could put some local newspapers out of business.
Peter Preston, writing in The Observer, said: “There’ll be time enough later this week to weigh the impact of section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act going live if Impress, the would-be press regulator, is deemed fit for Royal Charter purpose.
“But it’s difficult even now, as Sir Philip Green becomes plain Phil – at least at the hands of MPs shouting ‘billionaire spiv’ – not to ponder what section 40 might mean in any notional case brought by Green against a non-Impress paper (from the Guardian and FT to the Mail). Plain Phil could lose big – but he’d still win the costs on both sides. A newspaper would lose hundreds of thousands of pounds in victory.
“No, the BBC and ITN aren’t affected here. Nor is BuzzFeed, the HuffPost or Vice. This is one post-Leveson legacy reserved for newspapering alone. And looking increasingly idiotic.”
The Sun said: “Signing up to Impress would mean granting the state an indirect hand in what the once-free press could publish, when it is the primary job of the press to hold those in power to account.”
Matthew Parris wrote in The Times and Daily Mail: “This is blackmail with a purpose. The threat of ruin is to act as an electric prod that forces every paper to submit – ‘voluntarily’ – to state regulation.”
Appearing before the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Culture Secretary Karen Bradley said that while she said she had not ruled out activating Section 40 at some point in the future, she wanted to consider the options for achieving “appropriate levels of robust regulation… outside the PRP”.
She told MPs that there were fears among local newspapers in particular that they could be forced out of business if the Government took an overly “ideological” approach to the issue.
“In 2013 when we debated and passed the Act it was a different situation. We expected and hoped that the press would join regulators that applied for recognition under the PRP. That simply has not happened,” she said.
“I could do an ideological position on this but the implications of being ideological on this may be that we see a vibrant free local press being affected.
“It has been put to me very clearly by a number of editors of local newspapers that the exemplary damages section of Section 40 could see them being put out of business and certainly would impact on their ability to do investigative journalism.
“I want to consider those representations, consider them very carefully, and then make a determination. I am reserving judgement at this stage until I have had a chance to consider all the options.”
Evan Harris, joint executive director of Hacked Off, which campaigns for greater press regulation, insisted there should be no watering down of the Leveson recommendations.
“The Culture Secretary’s suggestion that the Government might be satisfied by press self-regulation outside of the Leveson criteria if it was, in the Government’s view, ‘robust enough’ would be a return to the wild-west days of the failed PCC (Press Complaints Commission), and decades of political-press back-scratching,” he said.
“Victims of press abuse, most of whom are ordinary members of the public, do not have the resources to take the press to court, would be being abandoned by the same politicians who set up the Inquiry.
“As long as politicians and press owners are judging press regulation, neither freedom of expression nor the public interest is safe.”
Meanwhile, the House of Lords has added a version of Section 40 to the Investigatory Powers Bill which would make newspapers pay both sides’ costs in phone-hacking claims.
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