Home   Blogs   Article   Author

Press freedom at serious risk from proposed changes to the law

Ever since the phone and email hacking scandal rocked the world of journalism in this country, local newspapers like the ones I edit have been caught up in a whirlwind of unintended consequences.

At best those consequences threaten our freedom to pursue legitimate stories and hold the powerful to account.

At worst those same consequences threaten our very existence.

Houses of Parliament
Houses of Parliament

We categorically did not engage in the already-criminal practices undertaken by some national journalists yet we are embroiled in the aftermath.

Campaigners are obsessed with continuing to punish the national press for its transgressions - a public inquiry, prosecutions, punitive damages in the civil courts and a beefed-up regulator with the power to impose substantial fines is not enough for them.

They, along with a number of parliamentarians, are pushing for changes to the law.

Their myopia blinds them to the chilling and very real effects such changes will undoubtedly have on the wholly-innocent newsrooms of newspapers like my own.

On Tuesday, the House of Commons will vote on a House of Lords amendment to the Investigatory Powers Bill.

If passed it means, we will be forced to pay our costs and the costs of those who are suing us for the unlawful interception of communications like phone and email hacking even if we win the case and we are found to have done nothing wrong.

The reason why we would be in the firing line of such a draconian and downright unfair measure is simply because we have chosen not to sign up to a regulator that has not been approved under a Royal Charter drawn up by the very politicians we are often called upon to scrutinise.

Instead we, along with 1,500 print titles and 1,100 online titles, are members of the Independent Press Standards Organisation which ensures we abide by the Editors' Code of Practice.

The same principle applies to the implementation of s40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 which is currently subject to a government consultation.

If activated, this poorly-conceived measure would mean we would pay the costs of both sides even if we successfully fended off a claim for libel. slander, breach of confidence, misuse of private information, malicious falsehood or harassment.

We would pay even if we were wholly innocent. It's like having to pay a parking fine even though you had bought a pay and display ticket and it had a couple of hours still to run.

The very real effect of this provision would be that anyone with an ounce of savvy or a lawyer, could threaten to sue us if we published a story they did not like.

That expensive threat would force us to think again, take stock and probably hold fire for fear of being unfairly hit by huge legal bills.

Vexatious complaints would effectively gag us. Our freedom would be curtailed and democracy, especially on a local level, would seriously suffer.

Our readers have a right to know but our hands would be tied and our keyboards kept silent.

The financial and structural challenges faced by regional media companies simply magnify the effect.

If the MPs in my patch are reading this, please take stock and vote to protect press freedom and allow us to do our jobs to the highest possible standards.

If you care about accountability, transparency and openess, write to your MP and tell them so.

Even better, let the government know too.

Close This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.Learn More