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14 October 2016

Local Editors Say S40 Costs Sanctions Could Be 'Final Nail in Coffin' For Local Press

Local editors have said the introduction of cost sanctions which could see newspapers financially penalised for telling the truth could represent the "final nail in the coffin" for local newspapers, after the Government warned it must be sensitive to the potential impact on local press. 

The Government said this week that it was looking closely at Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 which, if it was brought forward, would force local and national newspapers and magazines to pay the legal costs of unsuccessful claimants in libel or privacy actions, potentially opening the floodgates to vexatious claims.

Speaking in a debate this week, deputy leader of the House of Lords Earl Howe said the Government had a responsibility to be sensitive to the pressures on the newspaper industry and the “huge amount of change” which newspapers have undergone over the last four years when considering whether or not to bring in the costs sections. 

Local newspaper editors from across the industry including Martin Trepte, editor of Prime Minister Theresa May’s local newspaper the Maidenhead Advertiser, have spoken about the dangers for local papers of the costs sanctions. 

Mr Trepte said: “The effects of the costs sanctions triggered by the recognition of Impress and the bringing into force of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 by the Government would be particularly chilling for small independent publishers like ourselves. 

“It’s plain it could represent the final nail in the coffin for local papers championing local democracy by holding those in authority to account.

“I’m appalled the regional press, exonerated by Leveson, faces being the victim of flawed and heavy-handed legislation based on misguided ideas from politicians who should be defending grassroots democracy rather than the architects of its destruction.”

Terry Hunt, East Anglian Daily Times editor, said: “We pride ourselves on our ability to speak the truth on behalf of our readers. To be penalised for reporting the truth by being forced to pay the costs of an unsuccessful claimant seems completely perverse and a direct attack on local democracy. 

“The Government must not bring forward these costs sanctions, as they will seriously undermine local newspapers’ ability to report on important issues and weaken local democracy as a result.  

Denise Eaton, Kent Messenger editor, said: “The idea that the press could be penalised for being accurate is both astounding and absurd. I'm surprised it is even being considered it's so flawed and fraught with implications which could cause irreparable damage to a free press.”

Neil Benson, editorial director regionals, Trinity Mirror, said: “The impact of these costs provisions would be felt by each and every one of our regional and local newspapers and the business as a whole. It would fundamentally change the way our editors approach publication because they would have to consider the possibility of being financially penalised even if a judge had ruled that every word of their story was true. 

 “Enacting these cost provisions would represent an attack on local journalism and fundamentally undermine democracy at a local level. The Government must not do this. Instead, Ministers should be looking at ways to support a vibrant local news sector which challenges authority and holds the powerful to account.” 

Gary Shipton, editor in chief, Sussex; deputy chairman, Johnston Press editorial board, said:  “As an industry, local press now faces the most pernicious threat to our ability to report without fear or favour. If they were brought into force, these costs provisions could severely compromise our ability to defend actions even when we were clearly acting in the public interest. 

“In his report, Lord Justice Leveson praised the local press and highlighted the important role local newspapers play in society. He stressed that nothing should be done as a consequence of his report to place an added burden on the sector at a time when the industry is already operating under significant pressures.

“The costs provisions in Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 represent much more than an added burden – they are a very significant and real threat to the industry – and we are calling on the Government not to bring them into force.”  

In a debate on the Investigatory Powers Bill on Tuesday, deputy leader of the House of Lords Earl Howe said the Government was looking closely at the Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013.

Earl Howe said: “This is something that the Government are actively considering. I suggest to the House that it is not unreasonable for Ministers who are new in post to take time to understand the issues at play. The position is that, for the time being, Section 40 remains under consideration.

“We should also bear in mind that no recognised regulator is yet in place, although I realise that that could change on 25 October when the Press Regulation Panel rule on IMPRESS’s application. Regardless of the panel’s decision, it is true to say that the press landscape has undergone a huge amount of change over the last four years and the Government need to be sensitive to that.

“A crucial part of Section 40, for example, is around ensuring both sides have access to low-cost arbitration as an alternative to expensive litigation. The arbitration scheme run by IMPRESS is relatively new, while IPSO is currently trialling an arbitration scheme to better understand how it could work effectively.

“Given the importance of arbitration to making Section 40 operate effectively, it would also be useful to see how both IMPRESS’s arbitration scheme and IPSO’s arbitration pilot work in practice.”

In the debate, Lords voted in agreement with an amendment moved by Baroness Hollins, Crossbench, which would force newspapers and magazines which were not in membership of regulator approved by the PRP under the Royal Charter system to pay the costs of claimants bringing civil actions in court  for certain unlawful interceptions. This would apply even if the claimant lost their case.

Earl Howe said the relevant clause for the amendment dealt with “the interception of private telecommunication systems, such as a company’s internal email or telephone system.. so I do not believe the amendment would be capable of being used as she intends.”

The Bill continues its passage through the Houses of Parliament with the second day of the report stage scheduled for Monday (17 October).