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OPINION:

Just hours left to save our free press

Louis Baylis, the man who shaped the modern Advertiser, must be spinning in his grave.

When the then editor and proprietor of the Advertiser transferred ownership of the paper to a charitable trust in 1962 to preserve its independence his concern was the threat to its character and public service ethos if taken over by a larger publisher.

What, I wonder, would he be thinking today, with just hours left to respond to a Government consultation on whether to trigger a new law that could sound the death knell for local papers like the Advertiser?

And what would this courageous man (pictured left), arrested by the Nazis for making derogatory remarks about them while serving as British vice consul in Hamburg before the war, think of the threat Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 also poses to the very freedom of the press itself?

If introduced, Section 40 will mean any newspaper not part of the new state approved press regulator IMPRESS would have to pay the costs of both sides in a libel or privacy trial - even if it won.

It is a big stick to force us to accept state regulation of the press.

This gross breach of natural justice is a direct result of the phone hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Inquiry into the conduct of some national newspapers. Such activities cannot be defended. But they were illegal then, just as they are illegal now.

Lord Leveson exonerated the local press and praised the vital role we play in championing grassroots democracy. Yet now we could find ourselves facing a choice between being bankrupted in the courts or deciding not to cover controversial stories that could lead to a legal complaint.

And make no mistake, Section 40 will be a rogue's charter for anyone - from crooked officials to convicted criminals - who wants to keep their activities out of the public eye. All they will need do is threaten a paper with costly legal action at no risk to themselves.

At a stroke, local papers will be robbed of their ability to expose wrongdoing and hold those in authority to account.

"But joining IMPRESS brings exemption from section 40 - problem solved," say its supporters. So why won't we? One reason is IMPRESS has a compulsory arbitration scheme, touted as low-cost access to justice for ordinary folk instead of going through the courts.

Sounds good. But in reality it means opening the floodgates to vexatious and groundless claims that would otherwise never see the light of day. Under the scheme a newspaper has to pay for the whole process - a total of about £6,500 for each complaint - with the threat of unspecified 'compensation' on top.

Another risk-free charter for anyone who fancies chancing their arm. To local publishers like us the costs would be ruinous.

Sound overly-dramatic? Bear in mind I get demands for compensation from people for publishing their court appearances. Imagine that, instead of dealing with these on the phone by explaining the principle of open justice, each one meant reaching for the cheque book.

There are plenty of other reasons not to join IMPRESS.

For a start the Advertiser, like most other local and national titles, has voluntarily joined industry regulator IPSO, the Independent Press Standards Organisation. Set up two years ago, IPSO provides robust regulation of the press at no cost to the tax-payer.

Through binding contracts it can order front page corrections, launch investigations and impose severe fines on newspapers that break its strict editors' code. It is also piloting an arbitration scheme – but it does not apply to the local press.

Yes, IPSO is funded by the industry. But its chairman is a former Court of Appeal judge and membership of its complaints committee - which rules on breaches of the code – has a majority of lay members.

IMPRESS, on the other hand, lacks any credibility. Most of its funding comes from Max Mosley, the motor-racing tycoon with a well known axe to grind against the popular press.

It does not represent the industry - only about 30 micro website publishers have joined it. It does not have its own editors' code - it's currently using IPSO's. And it is yet to rule on a single complaint.

It is also backed by the state, having been approved under a Royal Charter drawn up by politicians after the Leveson Inquiry. The charter is underpinned by statute which can be changed by a majority of two thirds in Parliament - it was passed with a much bigger majority than this.

Its supporters describe this as 'arm's length' state regulation. But to anyone who values press freedom it is unacceptable. IPSO refuses to seek recognition under the charter for just this reason.

As the Index on Censorship - which campaigns for freedom of expression worldwide - says: 'Freedom of the press - including total freedom from any state involvement in press regulation - is the bedrock of a free and democratic society'.

And alarmingly, senior figures behind IMPRESS have openly called for some national tabloids to be closed. You cannot dictate to people in a democracy what they should or should not read because you don’t like it. And what does this say about the ability of IMPRESS to be a fair industry regulator?

All this talk of censorship and press freedom might sound a bit grand coming from the Advertiser.

But we have a tradition of championing our communities to defend. And we also have a duty entrusted to us by Louis Baylis to preserve the independence of our papers - even if that is from interference by the state itself.

We owe it to him to fight tooth and nail to preserve his legacy. A legacy that sees at least 80 per cent of our profits given to the Trust, which in turn has poured more than £5m back into our community.

We'd rather our profits continued to go to our community rather than into the pockets of lawyers and chancers.

But we need the help of everyone who believes in a free press.

If you haven't yet completed the consultation and called for Section 40 to be repealed please go to www.freethepress.co.uk

The consultation closes at 5pm on Tuesday, January 10.

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