SoE President: Costs Provisions Could Ruin Newspapers

Costs sanctions which could see newspapers financially penalised for telling the truth could ruin newspapers, the new Society of Editors president has warned.

Speaking at the close of the Society of Editors conference in Carlisle, incoming president Ian MacGregor, weekend editor of The Telegraph, urged the industry to fight back against plans to introduce provisions for costs orders in the Crime and Courts Act 2013.

The government has yet to decide whether to implement the provisions under Section 40 which could see media organisations forced to pay both sides’ costs in privacy and defamation cases even if they successfully defend a case.

Mr MacGregor said: “Despite assurances from the then Secretary of State for Culture John Whittingdale a year ago – and his predecessor the year before – we journalists now face a very serious threat which could ruin newspapers up and down the land.

“It flies in the face of the centuries-old first principle of our legal system – that it should be fair.

“Of course what the politicians and activists supporting Section 40 want is to drive us to sign up to a regulatory body that complies with the Royal Charter and is overseen by a watchdog created by Parliament.

“We passionately believe that that any kind of watchdog that is set up by Parliament automatically loses its independence and is very dangerous.

“Freedom of the press is absolutely crucial. Just look at those countries around the world now where there is no such thing.”

Mr MacGregor, elected as President of the Society of Editors at its annual general meeting during the conference, urged delegates to stress the dangers of implementing the legislation to the Culture Secretary.

He added: “We have to stand up to this draconian threat. We must ensure the new Culture Secretary Karen Bradley is fully aware of just how strongly we feel and that she does not trigger the order to go ahead with this.

“Investigations, campaigning, holding people to account is what we are all about. Great exclusives are our lifeblood.

“Please don’t let Section 40 slip through. Please urge your readers to write to their MPs to register their concern.”

The future of local and regional newspapers particularly could be put at risk by the costs orders.

Mr MacGregor’s comments echoed  by Sir Alan Moses, IPSO chairman, to resist any kind of compulsory control over the press.

Speaking at the Society’s annual dinner at Carlisle racecourse, Sir Alan said: “Regulation of the press will never work if it is compulsory.”

“The real and underlying danger of Section 40 of the Courts Act, designed to make you pay up even if you’ve proved that someone is a liar in court, lies not in the purpose which it proclaims – that your regulator should be recognised by and paid for by the state – but a far more fundamental and underlying current.

“That it is intended to herd you, force you into something you don’t want to do. The essence of our press is that it cannot and should not be forced into doing anything it does not choose to do. If it acts under compulsion then it is, I suggest, indeed doomed.”

Newspapers this week have been urging the Government to abandon any plans to enable Section 40 with the Telegraph, a member of Ipso, noting “Sir Alan heads a regulator that has shown itself to be tough, independent and which commands confidence among all but the most blinkered anti-Press campaigners. Ministers should let it get on with the job – and bin Section 40 for good.”

Writing in the i Gary Shipton echoed the Telegraph’s sentiments:”The purpose of all this is to bully newspapers into joining a specific regulator, one that is under the thumb of the Establishment. No self-respecting national or local newspaper would succumb in this way and were they to, democracy itself would be placed in jeopardy.”

In the leader in today’s Times covering the practical consequences of enabling Section 40 it said “It would encourage baseless lawsuits from plaintiffs seeking simply to run up defendants’ legal bills. It would encourage those with something to hide to sue in the hope of settling out of court. Conversely, it would force papers to pay to prove that what they had printed was true. Finally, it would threaten most the local and regional newspapers least equipped to fight.

“The abuse of libel laws is not imaginary. Even without the perverse incentives Section 40 would introduce, the disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong sued The Sunday Times to contest the truth about his doping and to intimidate other news organisations thinking of pursuing it. A situation in which the newspaper would have had to pay to expose him as a serial liar defies all logic.”

The leader concludes that “Section 40 would force titles regulated by Ipso to pay up even when vindicated in court, while sparing those under “recognised” regulation from such absurdity. To any reasonable observer this smacks less of enlightened governance, than of blackmail.”