Monday, January 09, 2017

24 hours to save Britain's free press

Exactly one day left in the consultation on Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013.

The consultation closes at 5pm on Tuesday 10th January 2017.

I believe that Section 40 would seriously damage Britain's democracy by emasculating press freedom. This law was put on the statute book as part of the reaction to the Leveson Inquiry and the phone hacking scandal, as a result of lobbying by people who were upset with the way the press had behaved. It was not initially brought into effect, but the government, which is under enormous pressure from the opposition parties, the House of Lords and some backbenchers to bring section 40 into effect, is consulting on whether or not to do so.

Section 40 means that if a newspaper refuses to sign up to the government-approved regulator, which most of them have, and somebody does not like a report that newspaper writes and sues them, the paper can be ordered to pay the legal costs of both sides even if they win and their article was found to be truthful and in the public interest.

This an attempt to blackmail newspapers into signing up for the approved regulator but I believe it would he a disastrous error.

Even if Impress, the government approved regulator, looked like a body that was fit for purpose, I could understand why a good journalist or paper might not want to be subject to it. But in fact some of the board of Impress have said things which clearly indicate that they are deeply hostile to much of the British press, to a sufficient extent to call into question their ability to act as a neutral arbiter.

As I have said before, I am not a big fan of Britain's newspapers - they don't always get it right and some things they have done have been disgraceful. I would like to see  IPSOS, the regulatory body which most of the newspapers are signed up, introduce a system of low-cost arbitration.

But section 40 is not just the wrong was to get press reform but a counterproductive and disastrous one because it will hammer good journalism as well as bad. 

As I have said before and will say again, Section 40 will crucify the ability of local newspapers like the News and Star, Whitehaven News or the Keswick Reminder to report anything controversial for fear of malicious legal actions.

 You can take part in the government consultation at

and if you want to live in a country with a genuinely free and independent press that can challenge vested interests or expose wrongdoing, I strongly recommend that you do so, and ask the government not to implement Section 40.


Anonymous said...

When has the Whitehaven News ever said anything controversial let alone critical of their paymasters the Nuclear Industy - the Government.

Chris Whiteside said...

I can recall the local newspapers in Whitehaven having a pop at Sellafield on more than one occasion. Can't remember whether it was the Whitehaven News or the News and Star the published the "We buried empty shells" headline but both have certainly had a go.

And while I was an opposition councillor on Copeland Borough Council I can assure you that the then council administration - that was the former leader and her team, not the present mayor - were absolutely convinced that the local papers were out to get them.

Must confess I took that as a sign that the Whitehaven News, News and Star and NWEM were doing their jobs properly.

They certainly have not given Copeland BC an easy time, and nor should they have.

Look at the way the local papers broke and/or wrote up the stories of

* the period when it took two years to get the Copeland BC accounts signed off,

* the millions which were lost in the books and then reappeared,

* the "computer virus,"

* the failure to apply for flag status on Copeland's beaches

* the resident who was prosecuted because his bin was a few inches short of closing,

* the time the council took the bottoms off bus shelters and then immediately put them back (because of confusion over the smoking ban),

* the new stadium fiasco,

* the cover-up of the report on the new stadium fiasco,

* the time the council tried to make elderly residents push their wheelie bins a long distance down the road

and all the terrible audit reports on Copeland BC.

I really don't think any reasonable person who has been following events can deny that over the twelve years I have lived in Copeland the Whitehaven News and other local papers have given Copeland Borough Council and Cumbria County council a very great deal of richly-deserved hell.

And anything which interferes with their ability to hold the feet of local politicians to the fire has to be a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

Writing a few columns in a paper doesn't hold people to account. Since you mentioned them, was anyone ever held to account over the stadium fiasco or Copeland dodgy accounts, if so who?

Chris Whiteside said...

The people responsible for those fiascos are not running Copeland Council now. Most of them are no longer members of Copeland Council.

And the contribution of the Whitehaven News and other local journalists in exposing what happened, coupled with the courage and persistence of certain local activists, had more than a little to do with the decisions by the electorate which led to that.