Will you have your say on the future of press freedom?

How would you feel if this newspaper investigated a major scandal that directly affected you, your family and your neighbourhood but was unable to publish it because it would face potential financial ruin if it did?

By The Newsroom
Monday, 19th December 2016, 2:48 pm
Updated Thursday, 29th December 2016, 2:11 pm
Can you help us keep our freedom? Picture: Pixabay.
Can you help us keep our freedom? Picture: Pixabay.

Never mind that the story was in the public interest nor that every word of it was true, honest and utterly without bias - a change in the law could silence us.

If you think this sounds too much like George Orwell's '1984' then you would be right.

But this is no imagined threat dreamt up by a novelist. Every significant newspaper, including this one, faces just such a nightmare today.

A piece of legislation, the Crime and Courts Act of 2013, was introduced as a blunt instrument to bludgeon the Press following the phone hacking scandal - even though the vast majority of newspapers like this one were found entirely innocent of any wrong doing.

That Act not only means we are now liable to pay exemplary damages if we are found in court to have made a mistake, but a sleeping clause known as Section 40 could be awakened which would force us to pay both sides costs even if our journalism is entirely vindicated.

That means that any investigation in the public interest could be silenced by anyone with something to hide because they would know that no matter how weak their case nor how robust our journalism we would have to pay their ruinous costs if they tried to take us to court.

Why was this horrific legislation approved in the first place?

Parliament, still nursing its wounds from the exposure by the Daily Telegraph of its expenses excesses and under the cover of the Leveson inquiry into phone-hacking, hatched a plan - without any industry consultation - to force all newspapers, good or bad, to sign up to a new form of regulation under a Royal Charter.

Quite apart from the abhorrent principle that any decent news organisation that seeks to hold decision-makers to account should submit to a state-approved regulatory structure that future Governments could tighten and change - the Royal Charter also imposed ruinous requirements around compensatory arbitration which many regional newspapers simply could not afford (even with a caveat that this might be subsequently reviewed in some cases if the damage was too great).

To blackmail newspapers into signing up to the new system, these punitive clauses were inserted into the Crime and Courts Act.

We will not be blackmailed.

Instead, the industry established its own new regulator IPSO which costs the taxpayer not a penny but is run entirely independently of us and holds us very effectively to account.

IPSO is tough, forensic and uncompromising with us. But we support it and the Editors' Code of Practice which it enforces because we know that sometimes we make genuine mistakes and we must be held to account.

This in essence is what we believe Lord Justice Leveson intended and it is working well.

Today, we ask you to support us in our fight for fearless journalism conducted on your behalf.

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.

There is currently a Government public consultation under way into this issue by the Department for Culture Media and Sport.

You can help by completing an online survey. It doesn’t take long and will make all the difference.

Without your support, Section 40 will be implemented.

The big digital sites like Google and Facebook sit entirely outside all this regulation and penalty. Their content, driven by algorithms, is unedited, unauthenticated and unregulated. You have no comeback with it.

It is your newspapers and their websites which operate professional standards to fight for you.

Today, we ask you to fight for us.

What is the Royal Charter?

The Royal Charter on self-regulation of the press was established as a new way of regulating newspapers and their websites after the Leveson Inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal.

The inquiry found local and regional newspapers guilty of no wrong-doing and said they should not be penalised.

Royal Charters are intended to enable an industry to come together to regulate itself for the good of the public. They are not intended as an instrument for the State to impose regulation yet no Press representatives were consulted over this Royal Charter - only Hacked Off, a pressure group.

It is claimed that the Royal Charter can only be changed by a two thirds majority in Parliament and is therefore free of political interference, but this or any subsequent government could change this at any time with a single one vote majority by amending the original Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act.

What is Section 40?

A key part of the Royal Charter plan is a law requiring publishers to pay both sides’ costs in a privacy or libel case, even if they won - unless they sign up to the state-sanctioned press regulator.

This would mean anyone could launch a legal action against a newspaper on an issue, no matter how small or unfair, and even if they lost, their legal fees would be enough to cause severe financial harm to newspapers.

This has been passed by Parliament - as section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. But it still needs to be signed off by Culture Secretary Karen Bradley.

Ms Bradley has recently admitted Section 40 is a threat to a “vibrant, free local press” and said she was considering the implications very carefully.

She said: “It has been put to me very clearly by a number of editors of local newspapers that the exemplary damages section of Section 40 could see them being put out of business and certainly would impact on their ability to do investigative journalism.”

What makes Section 40 a problem for everyone?

In the present economic and political climate, publications are facing increasingly harsh times – while there are many important issues to be reported on.

Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act threatens to expose media organisations to open-ended costs in privacy and libel costs – even when they win.

That is a big threat to newspapers’ ability to expose such things as corporate wrongdoing, political laziness, or the abuse of consumers.

Why is this being debated now?

To trigger Article 40 the Secretary of State must issue a commencement order but a regulator must also have been approved under the Royal Charter.

A regulator IMPRESS not supported by most reputable newspapers has now been recognised - although the newspaper industry has indicated it might challenge the process of that recognition by Judicial Review.

What is IPSO?

In response to Leveson, the news industry created the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) as the independent regulator for the newspaper and magazine industry in the UK. To maintain its independence, IPSO has deliberately not sought Royal Charter approval.

By policing the Editors' Code of Practice, IPSO holds newspapers and magazines to account for their actions, protects individuals’ rights, upholds standards of journalism, and aims to maintain freedom of expression for the press.

The body, run by an independent panel most of which have no connection to the news industry, has a wide range of powers.

These include handling complaints, conducting investigations into journalism standards, compelling newspapers to print corrections and, where necessary, issuing fines of up to £1m to publications with serious failings.

What is IMPRESS?

Impress is a regulator which has been approved under the Royal Charter process.

It is supported by pressure groups like Hacked Off - but no significant newspaper publisher has joined it.

As part of its application, it actually put forward IPSO's Editors' Code of Practice - endorsing the standards the industry has already established.

What is the Editor’s Code of Practice and how does it ensure a responsible local press?

The Editors’ Code of Practice sets out the rules that newspapers and magazines regulated by IPSO have agreed to follow.

It is the cornerstone of the system of voluntary self-regulation to which publications have made a binding, contractual commitment.

It balances both the rights of the individual and the public’s right to know.

It outlaws certain practices and ensures publications must be accurate, respect people’s privacy, avoid harassment, handle stories sensitively and act in the public interest.

What we want readers to do in responding to the consultation and how they should do it

The Government’s consultation runs until 5pm on January10. The Government confirmed that it would respond promptly to the consultation. Its proposals will be debated in Parliament.

If you support this newspaper's independence and wish to complete the consultation, we would suggest you respond in the following way:

*Go to ‘Consultation on the Leveson Inquiry and its implementation’ by clicking here.*Scroll down the page to ‘Respond Online’ and click.

*Page 1: Introduction. [Click ‘Next’ at bottom of page]

*Page 2: [Tick box ‘Individual’ and then ‘Next’ at the bottom of the page]

*Page 3: [Tick box ‘Neither of the Above’]

*Page 4: Which of the following statements do you agree with? [Tick the third box – ‘Government should ask Parliament to repeal all of s.40 now.’]

*Do you have evidence in support of your view, particularly in terms of the impacts on the press industry and claimants? [Tick box ‘No’]

*Page 5: To what extent will full commencement incentivise publishers to join a recognised self-regulator? Please use evidence in your answer. (Maximum 250 words) [Write answer: ‘It will not.’]

*Page 6: Do you believe that the terms of reference of Part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry have already been covered by Part 1 and the criminal investigations? [Tick box: ‘Yes’]

*Page 8: Which of the two options set out below best represents your views? [Tick the second box : ‘Terminate The Inquiry’]

*To finish completing the consultation, click ‘Next’ and then ‘Done’.