IF a local council, health authority or other public body is wasting your money, you want to know about it, right?

And if there’s a cover-up, or corruption or criminal behaviour by those in positions of authority, you want it to be exposed?

The ability of local newspapers like the Leigh Journal to do just that is under threat like never before.

An obscure piece of legislation could be used to impose crippling legal costs on newspapers and magazines in the wake of libel or privacy trials – even when what they print is the truth.

Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act could force newspapers like the Leigh Journal to pay the costs incurred by both sides in a libel case even if the newspaper wins and is able to demonstrate in court that what it reported was accurate and publication was in the public interest.

In other words, the freedom of the press and the public’s right to know – two of the cornerstones of modern democracy – are both under threat.

How can this be?

The phone hacking scandal prompted a wave of public anger against journalists, even though only a small number of national journalists were implicated.

Those journalists were dealt with in the criminal and civil courts.

But now, riding that wave of public anger, the Government is trying to force all newspapers to join Impress, a press regulator of its choice – one which was dreamt up by politicians and is backed by a Royal Charter. It is mainly funded by one man, Max Moseley, through a family charitable trust.

The vast majority of newspapers - including the Warrington Guardian - are already signed up to a new independent regulator: IPSO, the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

The clue is in the name.

IPSO is funded by the press in the shape of almost every regional publisher, most national papers and many independents and magazines but the majority of both its board and the complaints committee have no connection with the newspaper or magazine industry.

Forcing newspapers to sign up to a regulator approved by politicians would fundamentally alter the balance of power between a free press and those the press exists to scrutinise. Most refuse to do so, believing it would be a step towards state regulation and censorship.

But under Section 40, newspapers like the Warrington Guardian which continued to refuse to sign up to the Government-approved regulator could then be forced to pay all the legal costs for both sides in any libel or privacy action, even when they won the court case.

This would have a chilling effect on newspapers’ ability to hold the powerful to account.

We wouldn’t dare to expose corruption or wrongdoing, even when we could prove them, for fear of massive legal bills. Whistleblowers would have nowhere to go. And the public would never know what was being done with their money.

The Society of Editors has launched a campaign urging anyone who values freedom of information and freedom of expression to respond to the ongoing consultation on the Leveson Inquiry, making clear their opposition to the Government’s proposals.

Hayley Smith, Leigh Journal editor, added: “If you believe in freedom of speech, a free press and freedom from state interference in what you can read, please act now. Your local newspaper really does need you.”


Online: https://www.research.net/r/9WH5LV3

E-mail: presspolicy@culture.gov.uk

Write to: Press Policy, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 4th floor, 100 Parliament St, London SW1A 2BQ If you support the Society of Editors campaign, tick the boxes asking for repeal of section 40 and termination of the Leveson Inquiry.