The editor of Britain’s best-selling regional daily has warned that local newspapers face a “worrying future” if a law forcing them to pay both sides’ legal costs, even if they win in court, is enforced.
In a leader column to readers, Express & Star editor Keith Harrison said the implementation of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 would be a “dangerous lunacy”.
He asked readers to “speak up” for the paper that had been “proudly” speaking up for them since it was founded in 1874 by sharing their views with the public consultation on the Leveson Inquiry.
Section 40 was passed by Parliament in 2013 but has yet to be commenced.
Under the law any title that is not part of a Royal Charter-backed press regulator would pay both sides costs in libel and privacy cases regardless of whether they win or not.
Most newspapers are regulated by the Independent Press Standards Organisation which has said it will not apply for Royal Charter recognition.
Rival Impress gained Royal Charter recognition last month, however Harrison joined others in raising doubts about its independence given the regulator’s reliance on funding from Max Mosley’s family charity.
He said Mosley, a well-known press reform campaigner, was “a millionaire with an axe to grind”.
On Section 40 Harrison said: “It’s not overstating the case to say this pernicious piece of legislation could change the very fabric of our society and bring about a catastrophic end to 300 years of press freedom in this country.”
He said: “Few, if any, of the Leveson recommendations were aimed particularly at local papers,” and that Lord Leveson had “praised the regional press for its vital role in our society”.
Despite this, local newspapers will not be exempt from the affects of Section 40.
Describing the legislation as a “noose” he added: “It would lead to a raft of spurious complaints made by people unhappy with something they have seen in print, who could challenge matters all the way up to the High Court, safe in the knowledge that if they eventually lose the case . . . the newspaper will pay their costs.
“Not only is this lunacy, it is dangerous lunacy.
“Newspapers’ ability to investigate and publish everything from council bosses’ expenses to police cover-ups (both of which have featured prominently in the Express & Star this week) would be stripped back for fear of costly legal proceedings, even if the information was entirely accurate and in the public interest.
“Anyone with something to hide would know that even the threat of legal action would put doubt in the minds of newspaper editors up and down the land.
“As such, Section 40 is akin to someone throwing a brick through your window – then billing you for not only the window, but the brick too.
“The nature of newspapers would change forever, public trust in the local press would disintegrate and the economic challenge facing regional publishers would escalate still further.
“Public scrutiny would be left to internet tittle-tattle or unsubstantiated social media chatter.
“Credible editorial investigations would be taken on by only the bravest of publishers. In short, it would be a disaster for local democracy.”
Culture Secretary Karen Bradley has been reluctant to implement Section 40.
She said previously: “I could do an ideological position on this but the implications of being ideological on this may be that we see a vibrant free local press being affected.”