Section 40

I was delighted and honoured to get involved in the Birmingham Press Club last year, having grown up in a ‘regional newspaper family’, and spent my formative years yearning to become a sports journalist, a passion that ultimate yielded one back page by-line, aged 16, in the Chester Chronicle on the wonders of Olympic cycling champion Chris Boardman.

My Father has spent nearly 50 years working in the industry at titles including the Stockport Gazette, the Northern Echo, the Eastern Daily Press, the Western Mail, the foresaid Chester Chronicle, Coventry Telegraph and now North Wales Newspapers, an odyssey that took the family around the country and meant that I grew up immersed in the world of papers. That ranged from spending every night reading a huge range of local and national papers and soaking up their different styles, focuses, biases and comic strips (and led to my on-going distrust of horoscopes), always finding myself talking on the newspaper printing process accompanied by big metal plates and BRAD folders at the various schools I attended during ‘show & tell’ type lessons, and also developing a rudimentary understanding at a young age as to why the principle of freedom of the press – and freedom of speech more generally – was so important.

Quality, investigative journalism, with the ability to cut through to the reader and hold the unscrupulous to account for their actions was a craft that I grew up respecting and wanting to emulate. I witnessed a number of examples where my Father was put under pressure not to run a story, either by a local business, sports team, dignitary and even friends on rare occasions, only to learn that the Editor was always backed time and time again, because, once a story was verified, it was clear that the press both could not and should not be silenced. To me, that became ingrained in my understanding of basic democratic principles and a fair, free and open society. A press able to challenge and question those in power was an important part of our system – a key check and balance in ensuring that vested interests never ultimately had it all their own way.

Clearly, recent years have seen a number of high profile examples where newspapers have made some awful mistakes. One doesn’t need to say much more than ‘phone hacking’ to illustrate that. Yet, it is also wrong to leap on such a scandal and use it to try and fundamentally silence the press, which is exactly what the threat of enacting Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which was drawn up following the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking, would essentially do, by leaving newspapers open to crippling financial penalties should any investigative stories be challenged in court. It’s wrong and short sighted to say that the press has had it coming, or would deserve such a regulatory environment to operate in due to the past misdemeanours of a few, as such a step would remove such an important part of our democratic balance. We might not notice or feel the results immediately, but over time only the self-interested and unscrupulous would really benefit.

Locally, the Birmingham Mail has done a brilliant job in recent times championing a number of great causes that matter to the people in and around this city. The Justice 4 the 21 campaign around the victims of the Birmingham pub bombings is just one example of a local cause that has unfortunately struggled to attract national attention, but has seen its profile – and therefore its chance of securing its aims – raised by the local press. Bring in Section 40 and before long support such as this simply wouldn’t be able to be there.

The Birmingham Press Club’s stance over Section 40 is absolutely right, and is just one reason why I am proud to be involved with this venerable organisation.