The United Kingdom is not perfect when it comes to protecting freedom of the press. However, Reporters Without Borders, which annually publishes its World Freedom Index, notes that the country remains in the free column (and for what it’s worth is slightly better at supporting a free press than is the United States).
I wonder if that ranking will fall if the UK presses ahead with a new law that critics say would cripple investigative journalism in that country. Writing in The Times, British journalist Tom Bower explains what he sees Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act doing.
In a nutshell, if a newspaper refuses to register with Impress, the government’s approved regulator bankrolled by Max Mosley and staffed by his anti-media sympathisers, then newspapers will be compelled to pay the costs of claimants even if their claim fails. Crooks like Robert Maxwell could sue, lose their case having been exposed in court as liars, and still receive millions of pounds from the victorious newspaper. Not surprisingly, newspapers have urged the government to appreciate how section 40 will encourage the dishonest to pursue their groundless complaints knowing that the threat of ruinous costs will terminate investigative journalism. Karen Bradley, the culture secretary responsible for resurrecting Mr Mosley’s opportunity to impose his regulator, says she will make her final decision after reviewing the results of a consultation exercise that ends next week.
A number of other British publications also are critical of Section 40, including The Telegraph (self-censorship will be necessary), the Press Gazette (an effort to blackmail journalism) and the Belfast Telegraph (holding the powerful in check is threatened).
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The principle is this, that if, let’s say, an individual hasn’t got a lot of money, wants to sue a newspaper, particularly a big newspaper, then it’s a little bit as if you and I are going on a journey and I can only afford a bus because I haven’t got a lot of money, you are rich and you can afford a Rolls-Royce and you insist on going in a Rolls-Royce.
“It’s perfectly fair for me then to say ‘okay, we will go in the Roller, but you should pay for it’.
“If a newspaper insists on the luxury of a high court hearing then they pay both sides, but if they go to the thing that’s the whole point of Section 40, which is the inexpensive arbitration between them and the claimant, then it costs nobody anything, and of course that’s hugely beneficial to small newspapers, local newspapers, because if somebody rich takes them on it’s very intimidating, whereas if they can say to the rich person, ‘if you have got the money to sue us that’s fine, but we insist on going to inexpensive arbitration’.
Let’s hope the Brits do the right thing, admit enacting Section 40 would be a total cock up and opt instead to flush it down the loo.