By Nathan Sparkes
The Conservative MP and candidate for Leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has pledged to repeal section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 as a matter of “urgency”.
Section 40 is a costs-shifting mechanism designed to protect independently regulated newspapers from the risk of facing excessive costs when defending media claims (including so-called “SLAPPs”). It also ensures access to justice for members of the public, by protecting claimants from the risk of costs in claims against unregulated newspapers.
It incentivises press participation in the Leveson system of independent regulation, because only newspapers who agree to be independently regulated would stand to benefit from the provision.
Most national newspapers are opposed to independent regulation and are instead members of the “IPSO” complaints-handler.
IPSO is run by politicians and newspaper executives. It has been criticised as a danger to press freedom, and for providing a direct route for politicians to interfere in the press. Its chairman is a politician.
Newspaper executives are also heavily involved in the organisation, which upheld in full only 0.3% of the complaints it received in 2020.
A sign of desperation
It is not in the interests of the public or the freedom of the press to repeal section 40, which – combined with the Leveson recommendation of arbitration – has the effect of levelling the playing field between claimants and defendants in media cases.
There are however a handful of people who do stand to benefit: newspaper executives & owners who run publications with low standards and have an apparently cavalier attitude to press freedom.
These publishers are pleased to be members of IPSO because the organisation does not properly hold them to account. The detail that it is run by a politician does not seem to bother them.
The national press in the UK leans – overall – to the right. This makes newspapers an important part of the media for Conservative leadership races, as they are perceived to be read by a high proportion of Conservative Party members.
They also represent the biggest publishers in IPSO, and are the organisations which have led lobbying efforts to repeal section 40.
It’s no surprise then that Sunak, trailing Truss in polls, is now doing everything he can to attract the support of the press. This latest commitment has the appearance of a desperate attempt to attain more backing from the industry as the leadership race develops and he falls further behind.
Press freedom, and the interests of the victims of press abuse, should come first. And any leadership contender prepared to sacrifice that for the support of a handful of wealthy newspaper owners is not fit to be Prime Minister.