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KM Group editor Leo Whitlock warns of threat to Press freedom

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.

The Houses of Parlaiment
The Houses of Parlaiment

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.

If activated this poorly-conceived measure would mean the Press paying the costs of both sides even if it fended off a claim for libel or invasion of privacy
If activated this poorly-conceived measure would mean the Press paying the costs of both sides even if it fended off a claim for libel or invasion of privacy

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.

The government has embarked on a consultation around section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act.

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.

Investigative reporting or holding the powerful to account would be stymied by costly legal challenges
Investigative reporting or holding the powerful to account would be stymied by costly legal challenges

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.

No stick or carrot will make us change our minds.

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.

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 you care about accountability, transparency and openess, take part in the consultation. Click here.

This website and its sister newspapers are owned by the KM Media Group, a family firm which can trace its history back 157 years.

We been holding the powerful, corrupt and criminal to account while campaigning for the rights of its readers for almost 300 years in the case of the Kentish Gazette which covers the city of Canterbury.

But this pernicious piece of legislation could put that tradition at risk in an instant.
Everything we do is underpinned by company ethos - making Kent a better place to live and work.

That means when we get our facts wrong or make a mistake, we work hard to put it right.

We will not hide away corrections. We are up front because we believe our readers will trust even more if we correct our errors and answer criticism.

Our approach is underpinned by our membership of the Independent Press Standards Organisation and we work hard to abide by its Editors’ Code of Practice.

That code, a copy of which we all carry in our purses or wallets, demands accuracy, that we respect people’s privacy, that we do not harass the subject of our stories, that we do not intrude into grief or shock, take care when reporting suicides and stories that involve children, that we only use subterfuge in the public interest and do not discriminate.
Ipso has the power to order corrections and decide where they are placed.

They can fine newspapers who behave poorly up to £1million.

The way newspapers and their websites are regulated is in stark contrast to the new media giants like Facebook, Twitter and Google who operate in a virtual wild west where facts are not always sacred and fake news can be blamed for influencing rather important events like elections.

They are faceless, unaccountable and extremely difficult to complain to.

Yet they have become a vital part of the way we live our lives.

Those same companies are posing an existential threat to local newspapers that would be exacerbated if s40 were to be implemented.

They are trying to monopolise our audiences, filter their access to the news and take our advertisers and their revenues.

They are even attacking the local classified advertising market.

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