For most of us it probably seems unlikely that freedom of the press could disappear in the UK – that the government will control what the press can publish, or that publishers will be afraid to run exposés of politicians and other public figures. But that is exactly what could happen when the government’s consultation regarding the implementation of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, 2013 ends next Tuesday.
The Crime and Courts Act, 2013 is a result of the Levenson Inquiry after the phone-hacking scandal that put the News of the World out of business. Section 40, a part of the statute that was never implemented, would require that every newspaper not signed up to regulation by Impress would pay all costs in any libel case brought against it, even if it won the case. So, for example, if a major newspaper ran an exposé of an MP involved in a money for votes scandal, the newspaper would have to pay all of the MP’s legal expenses, no matter the outcome.
Impress is funded by Max Mosley, a barrister and former racing driver with interests in Formula One and other automotive organisations. He is the son of Sir Oswald Mosley, the former leader of the British Union of Fascists. In 2008, his sexual exploits were exposed by News of the World. He sued and won, not on the basis that the reported exploits didn’t happen, but on the basis that they were falsely described as being fascist. Mr Mosley funds Impress to the extent of £3.8 million, and says he may continue funding for years.
Impress is the only media regulator to have won the backing of Press Regulation Panel, which has been set up with a royal charter, introducing a degree of government involvement. About 50 media outlets have signed up to be regulated by Impress. The other media regulator is IPSO, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, with over 2,500 members, IPSO does not submit to the Press Regulation Panel, and is governed by the media industry. IPSO has an Editor’s Code of Practice, they can levy fines of up to £1 million, they can force publication of corrections, there is a 24-hour anti-harassment hotline, a whistle-blower’s hotline, they can investigate complaints and require their members to submit annual reports of compliance with the Editor’s Code and how they have handled complaints. This is a regulator with professional due process and teeth!
Mr Mosley suggests that requiring a media defendant to pay all legal expenses is an incentive to arbitrate disputes. He is disingenuous. A new horde of ambulance-chasing lawyers will certainly appear, attracted by the high fees to file ‘no-win-no-fee’ lawsuits. Why would they be interested in arbitration? He says that Impress will screen out frivolous law suits. Really?
You may be asking why I, as a writer, am interested in this issue. The answer is that I care greatly about the preservation of our democracy, and history has taught me that once laws are passed to regulate the press, it is not long before other freedoms of expression are regulated or discouraged.
If you agree with me, and if the government decides to put Section 40 to a vote in Parliament, please make the case for a ‘NO!’ with your MP.