There are potentially dire consequences for press freedom in the UK if Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act is implemented, says Owen Meredith. Here's what it all means and how you can help.
It will not have escaped your attention that press regulation is once again back on the political agenda. Across the national newspapers, regional press, and magazines, various editorials and articles have been highlighting the dire consequences of Section 40 of the Crime And Courts Act – a yet-to-be-implemented piece of legislation cooked up over late-night pizza with representatives of Hacked Off in the Leader of the Opposition’s office back in 2013.
It was designed to force big newspaper publishers to submit to a state-sanctioned regulation in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry, but has dire consequences for all of us, effectively ending centuries of press freedom in the UK.
Three years on, it has all come back to the top of the agenda as a result of a decision in November by the Press Recognition Panel, created under Royal Charter, to recognise an organisation called Impress as an official press regulator. The body, which is funded almost entirely by Max Mosley, has only a handful of members, largely hyper-local newspapers and blogs. It even lacks its own Code of Practice against which to judge standards.
By contrast, the vast majority of newspaper and magazine publishers are members of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) which offers tough and independent press regulation, judged against the independent Editor’s Code, and funded by a levy on the industry itself – a key Leveson recommendation.
The PPA believes, along with our colleagues in other sections of the press, that Impress is unfit to act as a press regulator, and should never have been recognised by the PRP. In our view, it not only falls short of the criteria required to achieve recognition set out in the Royal Charter, but contrary to Leveson’s recommendation Impress has not been established by the press it seeks to regulate, but by a group of people who have repeatedly and publicly attacked those very same publishers, including calling for advertising boycotts of individual brands.
Following detailed revelations about Impress’ Directors attitude to the press revealed by the News Media Association (NMA), the PPA has challenged Dr David Wolfe, Chairman of the PRP, to explain how their independence and fitness to serve as regulators was assessed during the recognition process.
Given the PRP’s decision to endorse Impress, implementing Section 40 would see publishers paying all the costs of libel or privacy actions brought against them, win or lose: a clear injustice. These cost-shifting measures remove the risk for individuals and organisations wishing to take spurious legal action against publishers, in order to gag the press and to prevent publication of stories they simply dislike.
Section 40, which was designed to target the national newspapers who were chastised by the Leveson Report, will in fact impact all publishers – large and small. It poses a very real threat to the great diversity of brands PPA represents – some 4,500 business-to-business and 2,500 consumer titles.
As the PPA has highlighted in our response to the government’s current consultation on bringing the law into force, magazine publishers would be subjected to the measure in just the same way as national newspapers, regionals, and online titles. Despite assurances given during parliamentary debate on the legislation, it is now clear any title publishing “news-related material” would be subject to this draconian law.
An exclusion for publications relating to “a particular pastime, hobby, trade, business, industry or profession” which contain news only on an “incidental basis” falls well short of the protection needed to exclude magazines from the law, and the majority of magazine brands would thus still be captured. Consider Farmers' Weekly coverage of the delays over Single Farm Payments, the BMJ’s coverage of the junior doctors’ strike, or Angling Times' campaign for cleaner waterways - all would now fall within scope or this punitive law.
Forcing the press – in all its great diversity across magazines, newspapers, and digital platforms – to either face punitive legal costs and spurious libel claims, or to subject themselves to state-backed regulation by an organisation that wishes to see huge swathes of the media shut down, is clearly a grave threat to both press freedom and the commercial viability of the press in the UK.
In responding to the government’s consultation, the PPA has rallied against the injustices of Section 40 to defend our members’ rights to publish news, comment, and opinion that their readers love. In doing so in a responsible fashion, our members bring scrutiny and hold to account the actions of politicians, business leaders, public organisations, charities, public figures, and others across every sector of society.
They do so acting with care and good faith, within the parameters of the law and IPSO’s Code of Practice. They do so often against well-resourced and powerful individuals and organisations, who will use any available tools to prevent such exposure.
If Section 40 were to be brought into force, all that could end. A free press is critical to a well-functioning society and democracy, and without a free press that is able to act in this fashion, we lose a great and central pillar of that very democracy itself.
What Can Be Done
By completing the online response form, individuals and organisations can make their voice heard as part of the consultation. Responses should be completed by 5pm the January 10 2017.
Click here to submit your response.
If you have any questions on Section 40 or press regulation please contact:
Head of Public Affairs