You have just five days left to help us save our free press. This isn’t spin. This isn’t an exaggeration.
Not since state licensing of newspapers was abolished 300 years ago have papers – and freedom of speech itself – faced a bigger threat. A threat in the form of a new law that could bankrupt local papers like the Advertiser and rob all newspapers of their ability to defend democracy by holding wrongdoers and the powerful to account.
On Tuesday, January 10, a public consultation will end into whether a truly dreadful piece of legislation should be introduced.
Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 will mean newspapers that refuse to join the state-approved press regulator IMPRESS will have to pay the costs of both sides in civil cases like libel – even if they win.
The costs will be ruinous for the local press and even national newspapers will be dissuaded from running contentious stories that could result in legal action.
The most solid defence against a libel action is that a story is true.
Section 40 undermines this crucial pillar of British justice and with it brings the whole house crashing down on the role of newspapers to inform the public without fear or favour.
It will be open season on newspapers for anyone – from corrupt politicians to criminals – who want to keep their activities out of the public eye by threatening publishers to stop them running stories. Or to punish them for quite legitimate stories they have had the courage to print.
Section 40 is a direct result of the Leveson Inquiry into the activities of the tabloid press following the phone hacking scandal. Such behaviour cannot be excused or defended. When newspapers break the existing law they should face the full weight of it – but that’s the point: all those activities were already illegal.
The local press was exonerated by Leveson. We have never hacked a phone, paid a policeman for a story or harassed celebrities.
Leveson called for better voluntary self-regulation of the press. And for the past two years this has been provided by IPSO, the independent industry regulator which the vast majority of papers have signed up to. Through binding contracts it can order front page corrections and impose severe fines on newspapers that break its editor’s code.
IMPRESS has been appointed under a Royal Charter written by politicians and which can be changed by Parliament. Section 40, which won’t apply to IMPRESS members, is a big stick to bully newspapers into accepting state regulation. Only about 30 small publishers – mostly hyperlocal websites – have signed up.
The rest of us believe IMPRESS lacks all credibility. It does not represent the industry, receives most of its funding from anti-press campaigner and motor racing tycoon Max Mosley, lacks its own editors’ code and is yet to rule on a single complaint.
Readers will be justified in wondering how it could have been appointed by the Press Recognition Panel – a taxpayer-funded quango set up by politicians.
Only in the last week the Advertiser received a taste of what life would be like under Section 40.
A convicted sex offender threatened us through his lawyers with a libel action for accurately reporting his court case. They made menacing reference to the risks to us if we refused to take the report down from our website.
Our own lawyers said the complaint was ‘entirely unmeritorious’ so we refused and told them we would fight the case if they sued.
But imagine if Section 40 is introduced. The floodgates will be open for complaints like this – from people who don’t want you to know what they have done – complaints which can be made at no risk and no cost to themselves.
Last week was a personal eye-opener for another reason too.
When I wrote about this issue on our website I found myself ‘trolled’ on social media by anti-press campaigners who back IMPRESS and refuse to accept that the editor of a local independent paper could have genuine concerns about Section 40.
This highlights the insidious nature of the danger to our freedom of speech. While they claim to champion freedom of speech, the only freedom the anti-press lobby really wants the rest of us to have is the freedom to agree with them.
Any voices raised in dissent are to be stamped out by the internet equivalent of a howling mob waving pitchforks and flaming torches in the village square.
And many of those who back IMPRESS have openly called for some national papers to be closed down – titles, love them or loathe them, which are read by millions of people.
I don’t like the editorial line of some tabloids and sometimes find the views of some of their columnists distasteful and offensive. But I find the idea of denying them their freedom of expression even more so.
Because you don’t defend democracy by censorship and you don’t defend freedom of speech by silencing voices you disagree with.
Putting up with views different to our own is the price we pay for being able to say what we want.
And the more valuable something, is the higher the price – and our hard won freedom of speech is the most precious cornerstone of our democracy.
So, if you value a free press, if you believe journalists must be able to hold the powerful to account, and if you prize freedom of speech, you need to act now.
Please call on the Government to repeal Section 40 in full. You can find full details of how to do this in the panel below.
Remember, the consultation process closes on Tuesday, January 10.
You can call for Section 40 to be repealed by visiting www.freethepress.co.uk where you will find an easy-to-complete response form. Or you can write directly to Press Policy, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 4th floor, 100 Parliament Street, London SW1A 1BQ, or email your letter to firstname.lastname@example.org
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