Campaign launched as 'Leveson's toxic legacy' will give UK 'harshest press regime in the free world' in weeks

News publishers this morning backed a fightback against “Leveson’s toxic legacy” and legislation that will next month give the UK “probably the harshest press regime anywhere in the free world”.

From 3 November, under the Crime and Courts Act, judges will have the power to impose exemplary damages on publishers who are not members of a Royal Charter-backed press regulator.

A second part of the Crime and Courts Act is set to come into force once a press regulator has official approval from the state-funded and Royal Charter-backed Press Recognition Panel.

This could happen before the end of the year, with prospective regulator Impress expected to apply for recognition imminently, and it will mean publishers which are not part of this regulator could pay both sides' costs in libel and privacy cases.

At present, Impress has no members. Most newspaper and magazine publishers are members of the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which does not intend to apply for official recognition.

Speaking at the London launch of a pamphlet called Leveson’s Illiberal Legacy, Telegraph Media Group executive director Lord Black said that the Leveson Inquiry, which began four years ago and inspired the new press regulation legal framework, was “biased from the start”.

He said: “Its remit was far too wide and missed the target. Its processes were unfair.

“And it was set firmly in the past of the newspaper industry, rather than its digital future, making it instantly out of date. 

“The reason that this is so important is because the inquiry left a toxic legacy – namely the imposition of the first set of state controls on the press in this country in more than 300 years – that are about to come a reality.

“That’s because most pernicious part of those state controls is about to bite.

“On 3 November, the press will be singled out for special legal treatment for the first time since 1695 when licensing controls lapsed.”

He said the new system will be “probably the harshest press regime anywhere in the free world, and much of the developing world”.

He added: “I can certainly think of no other country where newspapers are forced to pay the costs of a trial for defamation where what they said was truthful and accurate, and proved to be so in court.  “Just think how odious that is in a free society – you can punished for honesty. The repercussions of that are enormous and the controls themselves undoubtedly contrary to the most basic definitions of human rights – on freedom of expression, and on arbitrary discrimination.”

Lord Black (pictured above) said the Crime and Courts Act, which underpins the new regime, was rushed through by Parliament in 2013 without scrutiny.

He said: “Today we can start to put that right because this is the first time that a proper scrutiny of the inquiry and its legacy is being published by a number of leading free speech campaigners supported by the Free Speech Network.”

Leveson’s Illiberal Legacy was produced by press freedom group 89Up with financial backing from Telepraph Media Group, News UK and Daily Mail and General Trust.

Asked what effect the Crime and Courts Act will have on UK journalists, report co-author Helen Anthony said: “It will mean journalists are probably much more worried about what they can print.

"They will be put off from printing anything controversial if they are not a member of a recognised regulator. If they print something controversial and they are sued that could be it for a smaller publication, if they have to pay their own costs and the other side’s costs."

Professor Tim Luckhurst, of the University of Kent, launched an attack on press regulation campaigners such as Hacked Off in the foreword to the report.

He said: “Please set aside any lingering delusion that the post-Leveson debate is a confrontation between sincere reformers and rich, selfish vested interests. That misrepresentation was always cynical.

“Today it serves only those who would exploit the victims of phone-hacking to promote a narrow ideology."

The report alleges that under the new legal regime The Daily Telegraph’s investigation into MPs’ expenses would be impossible.

It states: “With cost-shifting, The Daily Telegraph could have been liable for the cost of a defamation action for every MP who decided to litigate a claim against it. This would occur despite the fact that the Telegraph could argue a clear public interest.

“Under the post-Leveson regime, because it had decided not to join the state-recognised regulator, it would find itself paying the full costs of MPs who had no case to argue under the law of libel.

“The chilling effect of such potential costs lies in multiple actions by separate individuals.

“Clearly the cost to any commercial publisher would be enormous and a significant deterrent to publishing award-winning journalism that is clearly a matter of the utmost public interest.”

Former Times lawyer Alastair Brett, who was at this morning’s launch event, warned: “The elephant in the room is the judiciary. We don’t know what’s going to happen in November when the judiciary could go bonkers and start dolling out exemplary damages come what may.”

He said that if IPSO offers a low-cost arbitration service to libel claimants, that may be enough for judges to decide that publishers who are part of it do not have to pay the other side’s costs – even though IPSO is not officially recognised.

But Anthony said: “They may decide that, they may not. It’s not a risk that we can afford to take.”

The Leveson’s Illiberal Legacy calls for the following:

1. The repeal of sections 34 to 42 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which underpins the press regulation regime

2. The annulment the Royal Charter on the Self-Regulation of the Press

3. Statutory public interest defence for all relevant civil and criminal legislation, including the Official Secrets Act, Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (phone-hacking) and the Bribery Act

4. Clearer definition of the public interest in the Data Protection Act

5. Ensure any amendment to the Human Rights Act, or a new British Bill of Rights, guarantees free speech.

Dr Evan Harris, from Hacked Off, condemned the report as “proprietor’s propaganda” and said: “The document fails to provide any proper evidence that acceptance of the Leveson system by the press would have any impact on public interest journalism  – like the MPs expenses story – and avoids mentioning that all these publishers have already signed up to system in Ireland which has similar ingredients to Leveson but which lacks the political independence that Leveson and Royal Charter enshrine." 

He added: "The paper attacks Lord Justice Leveson himself, the Leveson Inquiry, the witnesses, the independent assessors, the Royal Charter, the actions of the democratically elected Parliament, victims groups and NGOs. The report breathes not a word of criticism in the direction of the newspapers who were found to have 'wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people', who were the main champions of a Royal Charter until the one endorsed by Parliament was the one that implemented Leveson’s rules on fairness and independence, and who admitted that their alternative to Leveson – the Press Complaints Commission – was a failed sham regulator."

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