If you thought the campaign against the introduction of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 was nothing more than an unruly newspaper industry refusing to accept state regulation of the press on principle – think again.
This week the Advertiser received a chilling taste of just what life would be like if this particularly pernicious piece of legislation is triggered.
Under Section 40, any publisher which refuses to sign up to IMPRESS, a newspaper regulator appointed by the state, would have to pay both sides’ costs in court actions for libel and privacy – even if the paper won the case by proving its story was true, lawful and in the public interest.
The costs to all newspapers, but particularly the local press, would be ruinous. It will be an open invitation for anyone who wants something kept out of the public eye to threaten a newspaper at no cost to themselves.
Faced with being bankrupted in the courts, independent papers like the Advertiser would be stripped of their ability to defend local democracy and the public interest.
At the moment anyone wanting to sue a paper must pay their own legal costs. But this didn’t stop a convicted sex offender from this week instructing lawyers to threaten us with a libel action for simply reporting his case.
The man in question had pleaded guilty to a charge of sexual activity with a female child under the age of 16 and been given a suspended prison sentence. This was accurately reported on our website.
He claimed through his lawyers that our article, which is based on information from the court provided by the police, is factually incorrect and that it suggests he was convicted of further offences. It quite simply does not.
But the real purpose of the threat was obvious. The lawyers insisted the article be taken down from the website immediately, with a menacing reference to the risk to us if we failed to do so.
So, a convicted sex offender, who admitted his crime, doesn’t want the public to know about it and uses his lawyers to try to scare a newspaper into removing the story from its website.
Obviously we contacted our own lawyers. They described the complaint - in charming lawyerspeak -as ‘entirely unmeritorious’.
Not only is there no inaccuracy in our report but, as the information comes from the police and courts, it is protected by privilege - which applies in circumstances, such as court proceedings, where the public interest allows freedom of speech with no risk of actions for defamation.
And a statement is only defamatory if it is untrue and seriously affects a person’s reputation – I’ll leave readers to wrestle with the idea of a convicted sex offender’s reputation being damaged.
Refusing to be intimidated, we have written back telling his lawyers the report will remain online and if their client pursues a defamation case we will defend it.
Hopefully that will be an end to the sorry matter. But the process has cost me time and we will have incurred costs for our legal advice.
Also this week we were contacted by a heroin dealer demanding we remove an article about his conviction from our website’s archive. When we refused – it’s no different to taking a pair of scissors into a newspaper archive and cutting the story from the page – he threatened us with his lawyers. We’re waiting to hear from them.
Imagine then, if Section 40 is triggered. The floodgates will be open to anyone who wants any story about them kept out of the public eye to take risk-free legal action against a newspaper.
It will have a chilling effect on our ability to hold people to account for their actions.
This is serious. A free press is one of the fundamental pillars of our democracy.
If you haven’t yet taken part in the consultation calling for the repeal of Section 40, please do so. It only takes a couple of minutes. An easy to complete form and more information about the issue can be found at www.freethepress.co.uk
This is YOUR right to know that we’re talking about here – we let that be eroded at our peril.
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Police officers can be seen at Ten Pin Bowling in Maidenhead tonight following an incident earlier today.