The government is set to repeal a potentially crippling legal provision that causes newspapers to pay both sides court costs for libel and privacy, whether they win or lose them.
Pledged to ‘reform decades-old laws’ and boost public service broadcasters, the government said it would scrap section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 as part of the bill media law.
This culling has been on the Tory agenda for some time, with former Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan saying the provision undermines ‘the essential role of local newspapers in speaking truth to power’.
Although the measure was never put into effect, the news is a victory for press freedom campaigners, who have argued that the law discourages publications from publishing articles for fear of legal repercussions.
Matthew Dando, a partner at media and intellectual property law firm Wiggin LLP, said AM City: “This [Section 40] would have forced media organizations to register with a state-approved regulatory body or risk bankruptcy for reporting the truth. Robust investigative journalism would have been sucked between that rock and the anvil.
“To require newspapers that are not registered with an accredited regulatory body to pay the legal costs of both parties, regardless of the outcome of the litigation, was extraordinary and contrary to the very essence of democratic values. . It would have seriously compromised the ability of the media to keep truth in power,” he added.
As it stands, libel law is already stacked heavily against publishers as broadcasters are required to prove the truth of stories, making high litigation costs crippling even the best-endowed media organizations.
However, Simkins LLP’s legal partner, Jon Oakley, played devil’s advocate and said: “It should be remembered that this provision is a direct result of the Leveson report, which found multiple breaches of the part of the press both to behave responsibly and to regulate itself effectively.
Indeed, the law was originally introduced to incentivize publishers to join or form a licensed regulator, which led to the formation of IMPRESS, which covers 109 publishers and 193 titles.
However, no major publication has chosen to be part of IMPRESS.