Time to act to help save your paper

New legislation to force newspapers to accept state regulation of the press threatens to deliver a fatal blow to independent titles like the Advertiser. Editor Martin Trepte explains why the new law will have a chilling effect on grassroots democracy and why we need readers’ help to resist it.

Since it was first published in 1869 the Advertiser has fought countless battles on behalf of the community we serve.

But now we face a battle of our own – one in which we need that same community to rally to our cause. Small local papers like the Advertiser are facing a threat to their very survival, not to mention their ability to fulfil their crucial role as guardians of local democracy.

That may sound overly-dramatic. I wish it was. Sadly, it is not.

The Government is consulting on a particularly pernicious piece of legislation that, if enacted, could destroy our free press and bankrupt local papers.

If triggered, Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 would mean newspapers which refuse to accept state press regulation would be ordered to pay both sides’ costs in court actions for libel and privacy cases – even if they win.

Yes, you did read that right. Even if the newspaper won the case, proved its report was true, had been lawfully published and was in the public interest – it would still have to pay the losing claimant’s costs along with its own.

For independent papers like the Advertiser the costs will be ruinous.

It will be an invitation for baseless and risk-free claims made in the knowledge the mere threat of legal action will have a chilling effect on a paper’s ability to hold those in authority to account on behalf of its readers.

So, how has this happened?

The so called ‘costs sanctions’ in Section 40 are an ‘incentive’ to force newspapers to join a press regulator approved under a state-sponsored Royal Charter. Publishers joining the state-backed scheme would be exempt.

The Royal Charter itself was cooked up by politicians after the Leveson Inquiry in 2012. Underpinned by statute which can be changed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament, it is state regulation of the press – something we have not seen in this country for 300 years.

Leveson, who exonerated local newspapers and praised our vital role in a democracy, called for ‘voluntary independent self-regulation’ of the newspaper industry.

In response, in 2014 the industry set up IPSO, the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

The vast majority of national and local papers – including the Advertiser – have joined IPSO, signing binding legal contracts that guarantee its independence and give it tough powers to uphold standards. IPSO has refused to apply for recognition under the Royal Charter, knowing it represents state regulation and such a move would trigger Section 40.

But now the Government-appointed Press Recognition Panel has approved an organisation called IMPRESS as the official regulator under the Royal Charter.

Funded by formula one boss and anti-press campaigner Max Mosley, IMPRESS lists fewer than 30 regulated titles, mostly bloggers and hyperlocal websites run by volunteers. So it beggars belief how its application could have been approved.

Yet the decision means Section 40 can now be triggered, and with it crippling costs for papers that refuse to be forced into signing up to the state regulator.

It will strike a potentially fatal blow to local papers – now operating in the most difficult economic climate they have ever known – and with it your right to know what is happening where you live.

At a time when a blizzard of information is available online and through social media, much of it simply opinion and hearsay, trusted sources of news are more important than ever. It is ironic that those same social media channels go unregulated.

How to take part in the consultation

If you value a free press and the vital role newspapers like the Advertiser play in our democracy then please do take part in the online consultation being run by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport into Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013.

Please support the Advertiser’s position that Section 40 will not ‘incentivise’ publishers to join the state regulator and that Parliament should repeal Section 40 in full.

You can find the consultation, which closes on January 10, 2017, at www.research.net/r/9WH5LV3

What the act will mean for us

Newspapers like the Advertiser could be forced to pay the legal costs of both sides if someone brings a libel or privacy action in court, even if we win.

The so called costs sanctions are designed as an incentive to make newspaper publishers join IMPRESS, a regulator recognised by the Government -appointed Press Recognition Panel under the Royal Charter.

Publishers which are members of IMPRESS would be exempt from the costs sanctions if they made use of its arbitration scheme.

But even this could cost more than £6,000 plus unspecified damages for every complaint. For small papers like the Advertiser these are enormous sums and completely unaffordable.

It is rare for us to incur any legal fees during the course of a year – we have always set the highest standards and when we do make a mistake are quick to correct it and apologise.

This poorly thought out law could be the final nail in the coffin for the local press.

IPSO: the way to ensure free press

Britain’s press is already subject to many criminal and civil laws which impact on newsgathering and reporting. Statutes cover anything from defamation, harassment, contempt of court, court reporting and data protection to phone hacking.

There is just no need for more state intervention into press regulation.

After the Leveson Inquiry the industry accepted the need for a new and tougher system of self-regulation and set up a voluntary, independent system which is believed to be the toughest in the western world.

Running since September 2014, IPSO delivers on the Leveson principles binding the industry into an enduring regulatory system that, crucially, is underpinned by contract law, not Parliament.

It allows the press at all levels to keep the fundamental democratic freedom to scrutinise those in power, acting as the public’s watchdog and championing the right to know.

It upholds the 16-point editors’ code of practice which covers key principles of reporting such as accuracy and privacy, and runs a robust complaints system that is free to the user.

Headed by former court of appeal judge Sir Alan Moses, it can order the prominent publication of corrections and adjudications and levy fines of up to £1m.

For more details see www.ipso.co.uk

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