NMA Op Ed: An Attack On Your Right To Know The Truth

Free speech is a fundamental right that underpins many of the liberties we enjoy but, sadly, there exists a concerted and persistent movement to deprive you of these important rights.

Those with a vendetta against certain newspapers have been lobbying hard to get draconian new laws, which would penalise all publishers, onto the statute books.

They are trying to use the Data Protection Bill to create a new law, known in the industry as “Section 40-style costs sanctions,” and kick off a vast, sprawling inquiry into the media industry which would drain taxpayer resources.  

Section 40 means that, even if a court found every word printed by a newspaper was true and accurate, the paper would still be forced to pay all the legal costs of the claimant, estimated at a minimum of £15,000 just to strike out one baseless claim.

On Wednesday (9 May), MPs will vote on an amendment to the Bill tabled by Tom Watson MP, deputy leader of the Labour Party, designed to bring this appalling curb on free speech into law.

Not only would the costs sanctions bite hard on national newspapers and magazines, but 85 per cent of the local press would be swept up in it too.

Editors would have to contemplate the prospect of crippling legal costs each and every time they handled any information relating to a living individual, whether an elderly couple celebrating their golden wedding anniversary, or the subject of a major investigation.

Newspapers and magazines would be regularly and repeatedly punished by those with an axe to grind, simply for telling the truth.  

If that seems grossly unfair, that’s because it is. Eminent QCs and a host of international and local campaigning organisations have consistently argued against the measures.

And the influential World Press Freedom Index for 2018 found that the UK has a worse record on press freedom than any other western European nation apart from Italy languishing in 40th place – it’s worst ever position in the list.  

Section 40, which is designed to blackmail newspapers into signing into a state-sponsored system of regulation by Royal Charter, was spawned by the first part of the Leveson Inquiry which reported more than five years ago.

Much has changed in that time including the establishment of a new press regulator the Independent Press Standards Organisation, led by former appeal court judge Sir Alan Moses, with real powers based in civil law allowing it to extract real penalties including £1 million fines for the most serious breaches.

In a major move, the UK’s 15 best-selling national newspapers have agreed to sign up to IPSO’s compulsory arbitration scheme giving the public low-cost access to justice without having to go to court for legal claims.

The Data Protection Bill is also being used, through an amendment tabled by Ed Miliband MP, to attempt to establish another vast inquiry, inspired by the Leveson Inquiry, but much bigger, covering data protection issues in television, magazine and online sectors as well as newspapers.  

This inquiry, which would be likely to cost the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds and would undoubtedly result in more bad law and restrictions on freedom of speech against which we would all have to battle.

Like all media, the newspaper industry is grappling with the profound challenges of securing sufficient revenue in the digital world to fund the world class journalism and ‘real news’ which we all want to read.

The last thing the industry needs is another all-consuming inquiry which would distract resource, talent and time from the important business of bringing you the news.

That’s not self-interest or special pleading from the newspaper industry, it’s common sense.

On Wednesday (9 May), your MP is due to vote on amendments to the Data Protection Bill aimed at bringing into force the Section 40-style costs sanctions and a broad “Leveson 2” inquiry into data protection issues in the media.

These anti-press curbs do not just represent an attack on newspapers, they represent an attack on our right to know the truth about the world we live in.

Show your support for freedom of speech by contacting your MP today and telling them to vote against both these unacceptable and profoundly undemocratic proposals.