Think of the scandals of the last two decades; think of who exposed them. That’s why we need to protect press freedom and why, if you haven’t already done so, you should email to register your objection to the notorious Section 40 of the Crime & Courts Act. The consultation ends at 5pm tomorrow.
If activated, it would mean that publications who refuse to bend the knee to a state-sponsored regulator would pay the legal costs of anyone who sues them – right or wrong. When Tim Yeo was exposed by the Sunday Times, he sued – even though every word of their exposé was correct. The newspaper fought him because under the basic laws of justice, if the complainant is proved to be wrong, you don’t pay a thing. But if Section 40 were active and the Sunday Times knew it would have to pay about £1 million in legal fees, would it have run the investigation?
You might say: perhaps they would. It’s a big newspaper, it has those kinds of budgets. So I’ll give another example. Two years ago, my colleague Mary Wakefield heard about a freelance journalist who had conducted an investigation on Kids Company that no newspaper would publish. Camila Batmanghelidjh was a secular saint; her Kids Company was the toast of the press as well as politics. But we decided to run it, and Miles Goslett’s exposé blew apart the whole scandal and was later named Scoop of the Year, beating all of our better-resourced Fleet St rivals.
After we published the story, I had a letter from Ms Batmanghelidjh’s lawyers. Bizarrely, they couldn’t point to any inaccuracy and we sent them away. But we were armed not only with a great lawyer who advised us prior to publication, but we knew that, if our story was 100 percent accurate, no popular or powerful person can get a penny from you. But under Section 40, we would have had to pay every penny of costs had she taken us to court. Some people, like Tim Yeo, would do this anyway: they’re caught, they’re in denial, so they try and sue.
Now go back two years: would The Spectator have run the Kids Company exposé if we had thought there would probably be a five-figure legal bill to pay because she’d sue us anyway? A publication of our size simply does not have this money. Nor do most local newspapers. All investigations are expensive, but Section 40 will multiply that price tag vastly. It will mean fewer investigations, fewer exposés – and MPs like Keith Vaz will go about their business a little easier.
So today, all you need to do is fill in this form to email Karen Bradley, and say that you think Section 40 should be repealed. (And that no, the country does not need another Leveson inquiry). If you’re responding from your own email client, do copy me in: firstname.lastname@example.org; I’ve very much enjoyed the responses I’ve seen so far.
It is strange that we have to do this but, once again, press freedom is in danger. The last time Section 40 came to Parliament there was a heavy majority in the Lords and it was rejected by just a dozen votes in the Commons. Press freedom protects everyone; if you value it please send the government an email and say so.