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Comment: stop the press? This draconian law will

Warts and all, the good the bad and the ugly, without fear or favour. If we had a motto about how we report the goings-on in the community we care deeply about, it would be along these lines.

The crusading editor of the Sunday Times, Harold Evans, said that if he didn’t have a libel writ on his desk by the Tuesday morning he began to worry.

This might sound counterintuitive (who wants to be in legal trouble?) but a paper that doesn’t cause the ire of the rich and powerful, doesn’t cause disruption and fear among decision-makers and criminals – and even get things wrong – isn’t doing its job.

Of course, the Messenger is a community paper with a family ethos that has a different approach to reporting the news than the nationals.

Much of our content is positive, celebrating achievements in our district, but the “warts” and the “bad” are there too in the shape of court lists and stories, revelations from Freedom of Information Act requests, contentious council decisions and misuse of public money.

In fact, every story we publish has a risk of legal action. Publishing a picture, even in a public place, that someone objects to, no matter how innocuous, can lead to a legal complaint.

Believe us, it’s happened. Misspell a trade name in a charity story: solicitors’ letter. Accidentally use a picture in copyright: pay up. Big corporations employ people to scour every publication, including ours, to find out what’s being written about them.

Upset a politician, businessman, football chairman or millionaire (some people are all four) and our collars could be felt.

And all this is within civil jurisdiction, before we even get to contempt of court and other laws we have to delicately negotiate and which could land a journalist in prison.

With libel there are many defences that can avoid punishing payouts. As every trainee reporter will know, the big one is “justification”. Basically that means print the truth and you’ll be OK.

Hold Mr Mosley’s hand and he will protect you from legal costs. Snub him and you’ll get caned (so to speak) even if you win.

However, under legislation being proposed under section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act that premise is under threat. In a nutshell it means that papers who are not signed up to a government appointed regulator (hardly any are) face punitive costs even if they tell the truth.

It’s a bribe to get the press to join Impress, the only recognised regulator which is funded by the former F1 boss Max Mosley, who, to put it mildly, has an axe to grind against the tabloids (memory jogger: spanking orgies with prostitutes).

Hold Mr Mosley’s hand and he will protect you from legal costs. Snub him and you’ll get caned (so to speak) even if you win. This is the bizarre, yet very real, scenario facing the press.

On January 10 a consultation exercise held by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport will end and the secretary of state Karen Bradley will have to decide whether to go ahead with section 40. This is seriously being considered so it need to be seriously opposed.

It is no secret that newspaper revenues are under severe pressures due to the migration of advertising to the internet, most of it to Google and Facebook.

So a couple of big legal actions would kill off a small newspaper quite easily. It doesn’t take much, 200 have closed in the UK in the last 11 years, most of them local, even before this raised its ugly face.

We’ll keep to our values as set out above, without fear despite this gun to our head. We have no divine right to exist but democracy and accountability would be much poorer without papers like ours shining a light into the murky corners of daily life.

The Society of Editors is leading the fight against section 40.

Its director Bob Satchwell said: “This is an issue that will affect everyone. The decision about the introduction of crippling costs orders would inhibit the ability of people’s favourite papers and magazines to inform their readers of issues that seriously affect their lives.

This would also pose a threat to the freedom of the press and to the very existence of many newspapers

“Despite what you may have heard, the threat remains very real. Everyone, not just journalists and publishers, must respond to the consultation and write to their MPs to persuade politicians and the government to step back from a draconian measure that would take us back to the dark ages of press censorship, stifle freedom of expression and the public’s right to know what is done in their name and with their money.

Mike Dodd, Press Association’s legal editor and co-author of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists, said: “Introducing the penalties in section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 would not merely be a gross injustice, it would also pose a threat to the freedom of the press and to the very existence of many newspapers.

“There is no justification for trying to corral the press into the arms of a regulator such as Impress when Ipso is doing a good job and is now piloting an arbitration scheme.

“Provisions to make newspapers pay all the costs even when they win a case demonstrate just how utterly hollow are the protestations of ministers, MPs and so many others who proclaim their love of a free press while demanding that it be shackled at every turn.”

If you share these concerns please write to your MP before January 10.

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