Regional newspaper editors are being called on to urgently write to the government over legal sanctions that could see publishers pay both sides’ legal costs in a dispute, even if they win.
Society of Editors (SoE) executive director Bob Satchwell (pictured) has said the amendment to Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act could have a “devastating effect” on the local media.
He has called on editors to write to MPs and Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Karen Bradley MP, to protest the changes, which have yet to be enacted.
The Government is believed to be awaiting the outcome of Sun journalist Anthony France’s appeal hearing before deciding whether to bring the sanctions, which were recommended in the Leveson Report, into force.
The relevant section of the Crime and Courts Act has been passed by Parliament but has yet to be enacted by the Government.
Under the changes, not only would publishers be forced to pay legal fees for both sides, but if not signed up to a Royal Charter-recognised regulator (where one is available) they could also be liable to pay exemplary damages.
Press regulator Impress has already applied for official charter recognition, while the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which regulates the majority of the UK news media, has said it will not apply.
Satchwell told SoE members that while regional and local newspapers were “not at the heart of the issues leading to the [Leveson] Inquiry”, they could be “seriously, even irreparably, damaged” by the change in the law.
He said: “Ministers need to hear from local editors about the dangers of the possibility of having to pay the costs of legal actions even if you successfully defend cases.
“It could encourage more legal claims on issues that are usually settled by direct contact between editors and complainants.
“We fear that quick thinking lawyers may well try to get in on the act and you may face costs in dealing with complaints whereas so far there have been none, or only minimal financial effects.
“That could seriously damage or even close some papers. It is also totally unfair and undermines the first principle of justice.”
Former culture secretary John Whittingdale has previously said he was “not minded” to enact the law.
He also warned imposing the cost penalties recommended by Leveson now would result in further losses of jobs and titles in the newspaper industry, something Bradley recognised as a “dilemma”.
In a letter to Bradley on behalf of the SoE, Satchwell said: “The idea that a publisher or editor could be wrongly sued for libel or privacy, fight and win the case in court, vindicating their reporting, only to be forced to pay the costs of an unsuccessful claimant as well as their own, would be unreasonable and at odds with the fundamental principle that the law should be fair.
“In addition, not only would implementing such provisions create a real risk of a chilling effect upon journalism in the public interest, it comes at a time of already well-documented pressures on the regional and local press, of which I am sure you are well aware.”
He added: “IPSO requires editors to deal with complaints quickly and directly, which has long been the practice in local and regional newspapers.
“Indeed, experience shows that most complaints always have been dealt with efficiently and satisfactorily, directly with their readers.
“Punitive costs and the prospect of cost free legal actions even if a paper successfully defends its reporting could make a resort to courts more attractive to plaintiffs and their legal advisers.
“It might mean no win and no fee but more actions would take up court time and only the lawyers would benefit.”