The Freedom of the Press is at Stake

A controversial planned Press law will put the industry under threat like never before, writes Birmingham Mail journalist James Rodger.

“The future of journalism in the UK could be effectively killed off if controversial legislation is enacted. The controversial planned press law will mean newspapers have to pay both sides’ costs in a libel battle – even if the paper wins.

Critics have denounced this as blackmail and warned it undermine the freedom of the press.

Indeed, many of the greatest stories in recent years would not have been published if editors knew that even if every fact in a report was correct they could be hit with crippling legal costs.

Here is just a fraction of the stories where reporting could have been stifled by Section 40.

The Times journalist who uncovered the Rotherham child abuse scandal has said under Section 40 it would be “inconceivable” that the paper would have run its front-page story naming one of the abusers. Andrew Norfolk also said Section 40 represented the first time in his 27-year career as a journalist that legislation would “actually make it near impossible to do my job”.

Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Media Show, Norfolk said: “Although the public may sometimes believe we just shove anything in a newspaper that we see fit to print, the hurdles that we have to go over in order to get to a position of publishing an article that makes such a serious allegation against one individual are very high and last a long time.

“They involve an awful lot of meetings with lawyers. They lead to some key decisions being taken about what we can safely publish without risking huge libel damages.

“When we take that risk, like we did in naming this man, we do so because we believe we have the information that enables us to support every single sentence that is going to be written about that man and to defend it if necessary in court.

“If section 40 comes in, it is inconceivable that we would even have published that article in the first place.”

Jaws dropped in 2009 when the Daily Telegraph published leaked details of MPs’ expense claims.

The public learned how MPs were able to claim for improvements to more than one property by “flipping” the designation of their second home and were bewildered at claims for a £1,645 “duck island”, moat cleaning, jellied eels and horse manure.

But if Section 40 is enacted, the paper warns, “newspapers that had accurately reported information in the public interest – such as our revelations about MPs expenses – would still be forced to pay out hundreds of thousands of pounds to pay the lawyers of those whose misbehaviour we had exposed.”

The Metro warned this week that reporting of the scandal would “never have been possible if Section 40 was in force”. Newspapers would have risked having to pay the libel costs of MPs even if the politicians had lost their cases.

 

Sun Editor Tony Gallagher warned of how coverage of politics could change, saying: “A newspaper could report the conduct of a terrible MP, that MP could then bring a case for libel against a newspaper.

"He or she could lose that libel case and yet, because we are not members of the state-sponsored regulator, we would then be liable for the MP’s costs.

“That offends all principles of natural justice.

"It’s insane.”

Index on Censorship monitors attempts to stifle freedom of speech around the world and is alarmed at how Section 40 could be abused. For years, Index of Censorship has monitored state interference in news reporting, from the authoritarian Chile in 1970s to North Korea today. Editor Rachael Jolley said: “This repressive legislation would pressurise newspapers to avoid the controversial and not publish things others would rather were not heard."

Attacking the legislation, she said: “If such laws were introduced in another country, British politicians would be speaking out against such shocking media censorship. There’s no doubt that authoritarian powers will use this example to bolster their own cases in imposing media regulation.

"Newspapers and magazines need to be able to tackle controversial subjects, and hold the powerful to account, whether they choose to join Impress or not.

"In every issue, Index covers stories of corruption, of threats to writers or journalists and physical violence against people telling the truth.

"If threats of massive, unreasonable legal costs hang over newspapers and magazines then investigative journalism will be further squeezed."

In 2004 the Sunday Times linked the cyclist Lance Armstrong to the use of banned drugs and was forced to pay him £300,000 in damages plus more than £700,000 in costs. But in 2013 it recovered the cash after Armstrong admitted he took performance-enhancing drugs.

The newspaper stated: “Had Section 40 been in force at the time, the burden of paying Armstrong’s libel costs whether or not we won the case would have stopped us from publishing the story in the first place.”

The paper also warned that its ground-breaking investigations into Fifa and the World Cup “may prove difficult to emulate” if Section 40 is enacted.

The Daily Mail famously published the pictures of five people on its front page whom it accused of killing Stephen Lawrence. It ran the headline “Murderers”, adding: “The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us.”

Would a paper take such a risk today if it would have to pay multimillion legal fees for both sides even if it won every case?

Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn cited the exposure of the “monumental failures over the murder of Stephen Lawrence” as an example of an investigation which “would never have been possible” if Section 40 was in force.

We need Section 40 to be repealed and we need your help to preserve the future of press freedom and the future of this newspaper's campaigning reporting.”