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The new battle for press freedom

19 December 2016

2:34 PM

19 December 2016

2:34 PM

The fight for press freedom is back on – and it needs your help. The government is consulting on a draconian new law, the so-called Section 40, that could mean publications like The Spectator, who refuse to submit to Max Mosley’s regulator, would have to pay the legal costs of anyone who wants to sue us, win or lose. We would be made a sitting duck for anyone who felt inclined to complain about anything.

Take, for example, Camila Batmanghelidjh. She sent me a lawyers’ letter when Miles Goslett exposed the Kids Company scandal, and The Spectator became the only publication willing to call her out. It went no further as she had was a chancer and had no case – if she sued, she’d lose and would have to pay the costs. So she backed off. But what if she was told that The Spectator would have to pay the costs of a failed action? Then she might well do a Tim Yeo and sue anyway – after all, what would she have to lose?

If we were forced to pay for revenge lawsuits,  small-budget publications like ours would be far less likely to publish such investigations – knowing that the real cost would be in a revenge legal bill that could run into tens of thousands. Similarly, larger publications might think twice about doing investigations such as the Sunday Times sting which exposed Tim Yeo. When he sued the paper, he had no case. But had the newspaper been told to cover his fees anyway, it would have been on the hook for about £1 million. No newspaper could afford to take this risk, so we’d see fewer investigations.

The Section 40 proposal violates any basic notion of justice, yet this is the technique that the government would use to force us to sign up to Max Mosley’s regulator, ‘Impress’, rather than Ipso,  the independent press regulator. Unless we bend the knee to Mosley’s outfit, which is acting in league with the government’s Orwellian-sounding Press Recognition Panel, we could have to fund the legal bills for every crook, jihadi and general shyster who picks up the phone to Carter Ruck.

A magazine of our size – we have just 14 journalists on our staff – could not afford to write such cheques. But nor could we sign up to a state regulator after fighting such a notion throughout our 188-year history. No publication can be regulated, directly or indirectly, by the politicians that readers expect it to hold to account. And no self-respecting publication would sign up to a regulator bankrolled by a figure as egregious as Max Mosley.

If Section 40 is triggered then The Spectator, and a great number of similarly-sized publications, would be asked to choose between Mosley’s whip – or bankruptcy. It is nothing less than a full assault on the basic principle of press freedom.  And it would mean something else, too: that basic legal protection is not a right for everyone. That right would come to be seen as a luxury, withdrawn by the government from groups that it wants to harass.

Theresa May has started a consultation, to test public opinion. So far, Hacked Off – supported by a ragbag collection of priapic celebrities and wealthy businessmen – have been pretty much the only ones responding. This is where we need our readers’ help. Most ordinary people have better things to do than respond to consultations, which is why such exercises give the advantage to well-funded groups like Hacked Off.

Max Mosley has lots of money to throw at this. He bankrolls MPs as well as regulators – he has given £200,000 to Tom Watson, who is leading the charge against press freedom. The Spectator just doesn’t have this kind of money to spend on such campaigns and neither do the local newspapers who have most to lose from their plans.

The government’s online form is here, but it’s about as user-friendly as a tax return. The alternative is to email presspolicy@culture.gov.uk asking the government to repeal the appalling “Section 40” and desist from further harassment of the press (which means no more Leveson inquiries).

But even composing an email requires more time than people have. Hacked Off’s website has a template-response form allowing its activists to send a pre-written submission to the consultation. We’d run one here, but we don’t have any programmers on staff. If anyone reading this can create an equivalent, perhaps embeddable via iframe, then please drop me an email: editor@spectator.co.uk.

There is a strong majority in the Lords for Section 40, and they keep inserting it into legislation hoping to tempt the Commons into agreeing and then – at long last – calling the press to heel. The last time, there were only about a dozen votes in it: hence this consultation, to buy time. But even this ends on 10 January. Mosley’s plan really is terrifyingly close to success.

Britain has had a free press for three centuries; something that annoys politicians but ultimately protects us all. If you think it’s worth defending then please do email to presspolicy@culture.gov.uk and say so.

P.S. I’m now in touch with someone who has kindly agreed to create an iframe template. Details to come


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