Magazine article The Spectator

Leading Article: Keep the Press Free

Magazine article The Spectator

Leading Article: Keep the Press Free

Article excerpt

It is said that the case for freedom of expression needs to be restated in every generation, but things move faster in the digital era. Just three years after an attempt at state regulation of the press ended in ignominious failure, a fresh effort is being made. The government has begun a consultation on a plan to impose stiff financial penalties on newspapers who refuse to sign up to a state-approved regulator. Anyone wishing to give their opinion on such a regime has until 10 January.

It is odd, for a start, that Theresa May's government feels the need to consult on whether it has a duty to uphold fundamental British liberties. A 300-year tradition of press freedom ought not to be abolished because people (quite understandably) had better things to do than to write in and explain the basics to ministers. But it seems the Prime Minister is calling for reinforcements. Twice, now, regulation to menace the press has been inserted in legislation in the House of Lords only to be narrowly defeated in the Commons.

Press freedom is, once again, hanging in the balance. For generations, politicians have been annoyed that their writ does not extend over newspapers. Now and again, they volunteer themselves as custodians of press freedom and architects of a new regulatory regime. David Cameron did so in the aftermath of the hacking scandal. Following the resulting Leveson inquiry, the government set out a royal charter for press regulators. No newspapers signed up to it. The question the government is now considering is whether to force them to do so.

The plan -- called section 40, after a so-far-unused part of the 2013 Crime and Courts Act -- would mean that if a libel action was brought against a newspaper, it would be forced to pay the legal costs of its opponents even if it won the case. It is not hard to see where this would lead. Rich and powerful people who had something to hide would be able to threaten newspapers into pulling stories they found inconvenient. The risk of huge legal costs would be used as a battering ram against truthful reporting. To MPs, still resentful of the expenses investigation, that sounds ideal.

If defendants found not guilty of fraud or theft were sent a bill for the Crown's prosecution costs, as well as the police's bill for investigating them, it isn't hard to imagine how human rights groups would respond. Yet because this obvious system of injustice is aimed at the press, it has generated rather less protest from people who profess to be of liberal mind. Indeed, Labour and Liberal Democrat peers have been the most active in pushing for section 40 to come into force. …

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