A decision on whether to bring into force provisions which could force newspapers to pay all the costs in defamation and privacy actions – even if they win – is likely to be delayed for months by legal actions.
More than 140,000 responses were made during the consultation period, which ended last week, and officials at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport now say that a decision on the controversial Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act will not be taken until the end of the judicial review process.
Meanwhile, Roger Godsiff, MP for Birmingham Hall Green (pictured), has said he believes Section 40 is not a clear-cut issue and that there are valid arguments on both sides.
Responding to the Press Club’s concerns about the threat of the implementation of Section 40, outlined in a letter to the city’s MPs, Mr Godsiff said: “I, most certainly, would not want to place any restriction on investigative journalists doing their job of exposing national and international wrong-doing and the International Bureau of Investigative Journalists did a superb job in exposing those individuals who had hidden their monies away in tax-havens to avoid paying their share of the cost of society, when they brought the Panama Papers into the public domain. This was journalism of the very best and, of course, I would not want to restrict this in anyway.
“The issue of Section 40 is, however, not a ‘black and white issue’ and there are valid arguments on both sides.
“When the News of the World phone hacking scandal was uncovered David Cameron initiated a wide-running judicial enquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press under Lord Justice Leveson. After an extensive public enquiry the Leveson Report called for a radical change to the way the press was regulated. Until then the only redress that individuals who felt they had been unfairly dealt with by the press had, was to the Press Complaints Commission which was a body funded by the newspaper owners.
“The Leveson Report proposed the creation of a Press Recognition Panel, through a Royal Charter, which would set up a separate regulator, Impress.
“Newspapers and publishers were incentivised to become members of a recognised regulator and to make use of any arbitration scheme provided by the regulator. If newspapers and publishers chose not to become members of a recognised regulator then they would run the risk of being liable for both sets of costs in any litigation irrespective of whether the case against them was won or lost. This, of course, would seem grossly unfair but it would proposed by Leveson as a ‘carrot and stick’.
“The newspaper owners and publishers opposed the Leveson proposals to have a regulator established by Royal Charter and none of them have signed up. All of them, except the Guardian and Financial Times, have joined together to set up the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) which is still going to be funded by newspaper owners and publishers but would have more extensive powers than the Press Complaints Commission and could award considerable damages if individual complaints to it were upheld. The person the newspaper owners and proprietors chose to chair this Commission was Lord Hunt, an ex-Tory Minister, and he is being paid £140,000 a year to do so.
“The argument over Section 40 is, therefore, whether the Leveson proposals for setting up a state regulator should be supported or whether the proposals by the newspapers publishers and proprietors of a ‘beefed up’ Press Complaints Commission should be supported. Leveson strongly believed that because of the outrageous behaviour by some sections of the press in the hacking of vast numbers of phones, including the scandalous hacking of Millie Dowler’s phone after she had disappeared and been murdered, that the press could not be trusted to ‘police and regulate’ their own industry.
“The owners and proprietors have orchestrated a campaign against this by pointing out that Impress is being funded by two charities set up by Max Mosley and they have endeavoured to give the impression that the traditional ‘freedoms of the British press’ are going to be undermine by some form of state control funded by a high-profile personality whose private sexual habits were plastered all over the press. They have omitted to point out that their own IPSO is funded by owners and proprietors of newspapers and they have also conveniently ignored the fact that the self-same owners often use their newspapers to give voice to their own political preferences and prejudices.
“The public consultation has just finished on whether Section 40 should be triggered but I believe that it is not too late to find a compromise between the two positions. The public was outraged by the phone hacking scandal and by what happened over Millie Dowler and there was a widespread belief that elements within the press were totally self-serving in that they believed that they had the right to intrude into anybody’s private life even when no criminal offence was being committed.
“I believe that the public will still have no confidence in IPSO, which is an improved version of the Press Complaints Commission, but in order to avoid the charge that a state regulator is being set up to regulate the press I believe that we could accept what the newspaper owners and proprietors are proposing with IPSO providing the power to appoint the Chairperson of that Body and its members is taken away from the newspaper owners and proprietors. The Chairperson and members could be chosen by Parliament, which is after all elected by the people, or by some other mechanism. Perhaps the Chairperson of IPSO could be elected by popular vote on the same day that General Elections are held.
As I said at the very beginning I would not do anything to restrict genuine investigative journalists from doing their job of exposing corruption and wrong-doing but the issue of Section 40 is not about such journalists and their publications facing huge financial penalties but a fundamental difference between those who believe there has to be some non-newspaper regulation of the press and those who believe that only the press can regulate themselves. I think that a compromise can still be found and I am grateful for you giving me the opportunity of clearly setting out what my views are."
Picture: Birmingham Mail