Regional publishing bosses have called on readers to join the campaign against commencing a law which would force news publishers to pay both sides’ legal fees even if they win in court.
Archant has urged readers of its local titles, which include daily regional the Eastern Daily Press, to “have their say online” as part of the government’s consultation on whether to commence Section 40 of the Crime and Courts and Act. The deadline for submissions is 10 January.
Trinity Mirror’s digital publishing director, David Higgerson, has spoken out in a blog post about his concerns that section 40 would create a “compensation culture” against newspapers.
Under section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, only newspapers signed up to a regulator approved under the terms of the Royal Charter would be exempt from paying the additional legal fees.
Currently Impress is the only Royal Charter regulator, but it is the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) that regulates the majority of the news media in the UK.
IPSO has said it will not apply for Royal Charter recognition.
President of the London Press Club, Lord Black, has called section 40 a “clear and present danger” to the industry and has asked members to “speak out” against its implementation.
In a page dedicated to the issue of press regulation that ran across all of its titles, Archant said section 40 would stop it “being able to properly hold to account individuals and the powers that be”.
The publisher said its “freedom to report the truth” is being “put at risk with an ill-considered and iniquitous proposal that opens the door to anyone trying to sue their local paper with no financial risk to themselves”.
It said the law change would be “disastrous” and added: “We fervently believe section 40 should be repealed.”
Higgerson said that passing legal costs on to publishers not signed up to a Royal Charter regulator would have “far-reaching effects”.
“It would create a huge no-win-no-fee compensation culture at a time when the news industry is being battered financially in many ways,” he said.
“For all the talk of trust in journalism being at an all time low, the numbers of people reading local news is at a generational high.
“Take a look through your local newspaper or local news website and you’ll soon see news and features which editors would have little choice but to stop doing.
“Anyone who felt their reputation was damaged as a result of newspaper coverage would have nothing to lose from ringing a local solicitor and beginning action, regardless of whether they had any case that would stand up in law or not.”
Lord Black said: “Our industry faces a clear and present danger. Press freedom and the commercial viability of our industry – and particularly of the local press – is under threat from proposals to force us to pay the costs of a libel or privacy action even if we win.
“The Government is consulting on this and it is vital there is a huge response from all those who believe in a free press. We have until 10 January to make our views known.
“I know you share this passion to maintain our freedoms – so please help. This danger is very real and a few minutes of your time in responding will make a real difference.”
The Telegraph also published a leader column on this issue, saying: “Our politicians need to consider what they are doing before they proceed with a pernicious attempt to blackmail newspapers to join a regulator that is bankrolled by Max Mosley, who has waged war on the press ever since the now-defunct News of the World ran an exposé of his taste for orgies.
“The intention of the measure, in other words, is to stop newspapers prying into the lives of wealthy and powerful people such as Mr Mosley.
“Supporters of the Royal Charter that underpins the regulatory system claim that it operates in the public interest. It doesn’t; it operates in the interests of a few and to the detriment of the many.”
Telegraph editor Chris Evans Tweeted out a link the leader column saying: “Please, if you care about a free press, read this”.
This prompted the following response from the Telegraph Politics Twitter account (swiftly deleted) saying: “Please, if you care about a free press in Britain, stop firing journalists.”
Meanwhile, campaign group Hacked Off is carrying out its own mass lobbying effort urging as many of its supporters as possible to respond to the Section 40 consultation.
Professor of journalism and Hacked Off founder Brian Cathcart said the “corporate newspaper industry” was making “dishonest” arguments on this issue.
He said: “Its entire campaign, promoted not only in national and regional papers but also in internal propaganda directed at employees, rests on just two claims.
“First, that publishers – and in particular small, local papers – risk ruin as a result of the provisions of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which could see courts awarding damages against a paper even if it wins a case. And second, that Section 40 is a plot to drive free publishers into ‘state-backed’ regulation.
“Section 40 gives every citizen a right of access to affordable justice in libel and privacy cases, and a news publisher could only suffer an adverse costs award on winning a case if it had denied the claimant that right. How could it be fair for a paper to force an ordinary reader into expensive court action when a far cheaper and quicker alternative was available?
“If newspapers large or small wish to have complete protection from adverse costs orders in the libel courts all they have to do is get their regulator, IPSO, up to the basic standards of effectiveness and independence that are required for recognition under Royal Charter.”
He also denied that Royal Chartered-recognised regulator Impress was “state backed” because “any regulator recognised under Royal Charter by the Press Recognition Panel (PRP) must show that it is totally independent of political influence”.
He said: “Honest journalists would put all these facts before their readers – and they are facts which no one has been able to rebut – but our corporate press refuses to do that because it is intent on protecting its ability to trample on ordinary people without accountability.”