By Hugh Grant.
You may have read about section 40 in some of national papers – and nationally-owned local papers – recently. Section 40 was the Leveson “access to justice” measure which Parliament enacted in 2013, as part of the Cross-Party Agreement. Now, three years later, despite already enacting it with overwhelming public support, following meetings with press editors the Government is “consulting” on whether to bring it into force.
For the few remaining readers who don’t run screaming from the room at the sound of “Section 40” or “press regulation”, there are just a few hours to respond to this government consultation. Here are my answers to a few common myths you will have heard over the last few weeks during an orchestrated press campaign of fear mongering and lies.
Myth 1 – “Section 40 –means newspapers have to pay the costs of court cases brought against them win or lose which is unfair” and will mean that newspapers will be prevented from publishing important stories such as the MPs’ expenses scandal for fear of the costs of being sued, and will bankrupt local papers.”
This is all untrue.
A crucial element of the Leveson system is that newspapers – through membership of a recognised regulator must provide victims of the press (and small publishers) with a low-cost alternative (called arbitration) to the high court. Far from restricting great investigative journalism, this will actually free up newspapers to pursue more of it without fear of wealthy and powerful individuals threatening them with financially ruinous court proceedings.
All newspapers have to do is set or join a recognised regulator, and the boot is on the other foot. They will not be liable for the court costs of those who take them to court regardless of who wins. It will be the libel bully who has to pay.
That’s why section 40 is supported by great campaigning journalists like Nick Davies of the Guardian and Sir Harold Evans, the much-admired ex editor of the Sunday Times who was responsible for exposing the Thalidomide scandal in the 1970s.
In fact, the Leveson system has been endorsed in a Declaration signed by many of the most highly regarded authors, playwrights, screenwriters, artists and broadcasters in the UK, many of whom have campaigned for years on free speech issues. It is also supported by the international free speech organisation Article 19.
As for “small local papers” – the 20% that are not owned by giant corporations – they can join a recognised regulator and cut their libel insurance premiums or their lawyers’ wage bills at a stroke.
Even if they don’t they are rarely sued anyway. Any section 40 must be “just and equitable” so it does not apply to vexatious or trivial claims.
Myth 2 – “We already have laws to deal with press abuses and they are enough”.
Not true, for three reasons:
- We do have CRIMINAL laws about practices such as phone hacking. Sadly, newspapers hid their criminal conduct for years, and even when it came to light the police and government mysteriously looked the other way. This cover-up is being addressed, amongst other things, by the second part of the Leveson Inquiry which this government – under pressure form the corporate press – now appears to be trying to abandon.
- We do have CIVIL laws regarding libel and privacy. However, all litigation is expensive (as well as stressful and risky) and most members of the public do not have the means to pursue it. This is why Leveson recommended that an effective regulator must include an affordable system of arbitration as an alternative to the High Court
- A third category of press malpractice has always been recognised by the press itself, and is codified in their own “Code of Conduct”. This covers practices such as inaccurate reporting, intrusion into grief, attacking individuals on the basis of race or sexuality, and reporting of children. The job of policing this code and dealing with any breaches is in the hands of an industry regulator.
Unfortunately, this regulator has always been appointed and controlled by the very newspaper editors and owners that it regulates. It does not suit the business practices of tabloid newspapers to abide by this code, so they have consistently broken it with impunity. And every time they set up a “new” regulator – as they did with IPSO over two years ago – it turns out to be as toothless as the last one. Despite its description by the press as “the toughest regulator in the western world”, IPSO has not launched a single standards investigation or issued a single fine.
Myth 3 – “Beneficiaries of Section 40 are just celebrities with dirty secrets”
Supporters of S40 include the entire UK parliament who voted it into law by overwhelming majorities in 2013. And according to one of the most recent YouGov opinion polls, (November 2016) 70% of people favour independent regulation of the press.
Other advocates of Leveson are victims of press abuse who could not remotely be called celebrities. These include people who suffered devastating and traumatic episodes in their lives, and whose families were then exploited and abused by newspapers for the profit of their owners. These people all gave evidence at the Leveson Inquiry and are determined that their experience of doing so will not now be wasted by a government terrified of the press barons. They include the Dowler and McCann families, Christopher Jefferies, Abigail Witchell’s family, the Watson family from Glasgow, the Hillsborough Families Support Group and many more.
I can say from personal experience that S40 is of little benefit to me because like most “celebrities” I can afford lawyers and court costs. I can also vouch for the increased hostility from the tabloid press that my support for this campaign provokes. If I wanted a good press for myself, this is the very last campaign I would be involved in.
Myth 4 – “Section 40 will ruin local newspapers- even if they join a recognised regulator. They will be “swamped” by readers seeking compensation taking advantage of cheap arbitration for trivial cases”.
Not true, because it ignores three facts:
- To be eligible for arbitration, any case would have to be a legal “wrong” such as libel or breach of privacy (a tort, not just a standards breach like inaccuracy). Almost no such cases are ever brought against local papers.
- In all arbitration schemes there is an initial filter that would instantly throw out trivial or vexatious claims, or make the claimant pay for arbitration in such cases.
- Just in case these two safeguards aren’t enough, the Royal Charter includes a third specifically to help the local press. If a cheap arbitration service does suddenly attract a large number of non-trivial claims which are likely to cause financial harm to local newspapers, they will be allowed to opt out of the scheme altogether.
The national press knows that it does not enjoy the trust of the British people. In a recent survey it was judged the least trusted national written press in EU countries. So when it comes to arguing the case against Leveson and Section 40 it has recruited and hidden behind the more trusted local newspapers (most of which are owned by the Nationals).