The Conservatives have repeated their pledge to repeal “crippling” Section 40 cost provision laws which would force newspapers to pay both sides’ legal costs in defamation and privacy cases, win or lose.
The Tories said the legislation, which has been vehemently opposed by newspaper groups and press freedom campaigners, would undermine “the essential role of local newspapers in speaking truth to power”.
The party also pledged to extend business rates relief to local and regional newspapers, describing them as “as vital pillars of communities and local democracy”.
Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 would force newspapers not signed up to a Royal Charter approved regulator – currently only Impress – to pay both sides’ legal costs whether they win or lose in court.
Despite being on the statute book for years, the legislation has never been brought into force and it became a manifesto pledge for the Conservatives to repeal it back in 2017.
The party again pledged to do so in Parliament in March 2018 after 79 per cent of 174,000 participants to a public inquiry on press regulation favoured full repeal. Just seven per cent thought it should go ahead in full.
The Tories have now brought back the pledge to repeal if they win a majority in the 12 December election, saying that many of the 87,000 jobs in the UK news industry would be at risk if Section 40 came into force.
Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan (pictured) said: “Section 40 undermines the essential role of local newspapers in speaking truth to power. That’s why a Conservative majority government will get rid of it.
“Local papers are vital to local communities and should be supported, not thwarted.
“Sadly it seems that Labour seems intent on pressing with plans that risk financial ruin for hundreds of titles up and down the country – impacting thousands of jobs as well as advertising space for the local businesses who rely on these titles to reach out into the community.”
The News Media Association, which calculated that Section 40 would cost the regional press £48m a year, last week urged Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn to commit to repeal and support a system of voluntary self-regulation which has seen the Independent Press Standards Organisation regulate the majority of UK news titles.
The Conservative manifesto also reiterated the party’s announcement in March 2018 that it will not pursue part two of the Leveson Inquiry looking into unlawful conduct within media organisations and relations between police and the press.
The Liberal Democrats have said they would reopen the inquiry, while Labour said it would “address misconduct and the unresolved failures of corporate governance” that it claimed the inquiry had raised.
Neither party mentioned Section 40 in their manifestos, but the Conservatives claimed Labour’s plan “suggested that they would press on with damaging reforms to the newspaper industry, despite being warned of the consequences”.
Then-Labour deputy leader Tom Watson tabled an amendment to the Data Protection Bill last year to force punitive Section 40-style cost provisions, but scrapped it after the Scottish National Party decided not to give their support. Watson is not standing in next month’s election.
Press Gazette has asked Labour its current views on Section 40 but has yet to hear back.
The Conservative manifesto also addressed the balance of freedom of expression and online regulation, saying: “We will legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online – protecting children from online abuse and harms, protecting the most vulnerable from accessing harmful content, and ensuring there is no safe space for terrorists to hide online – but at the same time defending freedom of expression and in particular recognising and defending the invaluable role of a free press.”
Picture: Reuters/Hannah McKay