Regional editors reveal press freedom cost of legal fees

Leading regional newspaper editor have warned that rising legal costs combined with the continuing economic problems for newspaper publishing could lead to them spiking stories for financial reasons.

Speaking at a joint committee hearing on privacy and injunctions, MPs were told of the ‘chilling effect’of legal costs following the rise of Conditional Fee Arrangements (CFAs).

Asked whether he had ever spiked a story due to the threat of an injunction, Liverpooo Echo editor Alastair Machray replied: ‘Personally, no, but hypothetically it would be an issue for us.

‘We had a non-privacy injunction some years ago involving injunctions going out on the basis of confidentiality. The injunction was granted to a nightclub in Liverpool over a story we wished to publish and we went to the Court of Appeal and lost, and we ultimately won in the House of Lords.

‘Had we lost in the House of Lords our estimated costs would have been £500,000 – this is about eight, nine years ago.

‘As it was we won and the costs to us were still considerable, about £60,000. Now eight or nine years ago we would dig and say let’s fight, let’s fight, let’s fight.

‘I think we would be less inclined to fight now given that a few hundred thousand pounds for a local newspaper company now can literally mean the difference between profitability and loss.”

Sunday Herald editor Richard Walker said that his paper had fought on points of principle in the past but would now ‘certainly have to think hard over whether or not it was worth it… there would certainly be cases where we would weigh it up and think it would not be worth the money. We’d have to make an editorial judgement I guess, and a commercial judgement in some sense as well”.

Sunday Sun editor Matt McKenzie said it was not only the threat of injunctions that was having an impact on newspapers but the threat of any kind of legal action. ‘You may well have published something and you’d be completely confident that it was right and be able to demonstrate it,’he said.

‘But the costs attached to fighting that through the courts… when it comes to small publishers these are very real concerns. It’s a consideration.’

Neil Fowler, a research fellow at Oxford University and the former editor of Which, the Lincolnshire Echo, Derby Evening Mail, The Journal in Newcastle and the Cardiff-based Western Mail, told the committee: ‘I think the rise of the Conditional Fee Arrangement has had a big effect on regional newspapers, where clearly if you were to fight an action… under CFA costs can double or even more..”

He added: ‘I think CFAs have had that chilling effect, but at the same time, in my experience you would look at an issue and if you decided whether its worth fighting, you would fight it.”

Fowler argued that in ’50/50’situations editors would now ‘have to take a financial view on the matter as well but I think that’s not just true of the regional press, I’m sure nationals do the same as well”.

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