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Section 40 of Crime and Courts Act 2013 threatens Britain's free press - we need your help to stop it

By Ian Carter

Next year will see KentOnline celebrate its 18th birthday.

That’s a healthy age in digital years - we were reporting the news online five years before Facebook was even conceived - but it’s still a comparative baby compared to other products in the KM Group stable.

Our Kentish Gazette, for example, dates all the way back to 1717, making it one of the oldest surviving local newspapers in the country.

Section 40 could affect reporting across all the KM Group's products, both off and online. Picture: Ruth Cuerden
Section 40 could affect reporting across all the KM Group's products, both off and online. Picture: Ruth Cuerden

But whether we are covering the news in print, online, on air or across our growing social media platforms, we have one guiding principle - to make Kent a better place to live and work.

That principle does not mean we shy away from difficult subjects. Far from it.

We believe that shining a spotlight in dark corners, holding our elected officials to account and naming those convicted of crimes all serves the greater good as much as our community appeals and fundraising activities.

It does not always make us popular.

The drink-drivers and shoplifters do not thank us for letting their friends and neighbours know what they’ve been up to; those with vested interests do not thank us for giving the community a voice. We firmly believe though that such reporting plays an important role in a democratic society.

But now our ability to report honestly and independently is under threat like never before - and we really need your help.

A proposed new law could see us – and hundreds of papers and websites nationwide – cease to exist.

The Government is consulting on a piece of legislation that, if enacted, could destroy our free press.

If triggered, Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 would mean publishers who refuse to accept state regulation of the press would be ordered to pay both sides’ court costs in libel and privacy cases - even if they win.

Consider that for a moment.

We write a story that is entirely accurate but to which the subject takes offence. They take us to court, lose the case - but we still finish up paying their legal costs, which could total tens of thousands of pounds.

Culture secretary Karen Bradley has acknowledged the threat posed by section 40
Culture secretary Karen Bradley has acknowledged the threat posed by section 40

The inevitable effect would mean genuine journalism would cease to exist - who would take the risk? Instead ‘news’ would consist of nothing but pictures of cute kittens and clickbait.

You may think that in a social media age, there is no longer a need for local news providers like us.

We believe the opposite to be the case. In a time of fake news and social media echo chambers, we think it’s vital that regulated, impartial publishers exist.

After all, you will never see Facebook sending staff to cover Maidstone Magistrates Court, Twitter and Snapchat will never sit through a detailed planning inquiry. If we don’t do it, then who will?

We would never pretend to be perfect. We report on more news, at greater speed and with fewer resources than in years gone by.

Given all that, we get very few things wrong - but when we do we are obliged by regulator Ipso to put them right immediately.

Journalism’s name has been dragged through the mud in recent years, and deservedly so in some cases.

But we do not operate in the world of phone hacking or Fake Sheikhs here in Kent. There has never been a suggestion that the KM has been guilty of the wrongdoing highlighted in the Leveson Inquiry, and we do not believe we should pay for others’ transgressions.

The challenges facing the publishing industry have been well documented. Many of our traditional revenue streams have been hoovered up by Facebook and Google, who enjoy the benefits of publishing our content without any of the associated costs or risks.

This proposed legislation could be the final nail in the coffin for many.

If you think Section 40 sounds unfair, a new website has been created to give you an easy way to make your voice heard.

www.freethepress.co.uk contains an online form allowing you to respond to the Government consultation along with links to more information on the subject.

Your help would be hugely appreciated.

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