THE implementation of Section 40 could mean a painful end for regional newspapers such as the Rotherham Advertiser.
The proposed legislation could see media companies forced to pay the legal costs of both sides in libel and privacy cases, even when an action has been successfully defended.
The Advertiser has served the people of Rotherham for almost 160 years. It is part of the fabric of life here as are papers all over the country.
Regional papers provide information relevant to the lives of those who live in their communities. They hold people to account, tell them what’s on and where, what the people they know are up to in the areas in which they live and what those they have elected are doing on their behalf.
There are irresponsible newspapers, whose editors and owners do not always make decisions for the right reasons and elect to publish what basically amounts to malicious gossip. The local papers that will be hit the most by this legislation are not among those, yet they are the ones whose owners will have no choice but to order their editors not to publish stories that may be contentious.
This legislation will strike at the very fabric of democracy – the freedom of the press. It will lead to regular calls from those in power signalling their intentions to challenge stories that question their decisions or integrity – and in a time when the long-term future of print media is under threat from many areas, what newspaper owner is going to allow an editor to print stories that could lead to payouts of several thousand pounds to complainants, even if the complaint is eventually judged to be without foundation?
We at the Rotherham Advertiser, like all papers, deal with complaints on a weekly basis. A financial incentive or the threat of the possibility of a complaint meaning a pay-out will lead firstly to an increase in the number of complaints and secondly to stories that are in the public interest not being printed.
The Rotherham Advertiser, along with most other newspapers, already subscribes to the independent regulator IPSO ‑ Independent Press Standards Organisation – and we abide by strict libel laws.
Examples of stories over the past couple of years that may not have been published had Section 40 existed include a court story in which the standard of policing during a far-right march in Rotherham was called into question, calls for senior figures in positions of power at the time of the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal to resign, the sectarian abuse charge levelled at Rotherham United player Kirk Broadfoot – the Football Association warned us off this story – a sexual assault charge made by a Rotherham councillor against a fellow member and the revealing of the local hospital’s multi-million pound agency nurse bill.
Indeed, the whole sorry saga of the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal could have remained forever hidden if Section 40 was in existence. People in power with something to hide represented by lawyers with money the main object would prove a fearsome opponent for a financially-challenged publisher with public interest in mind.
If this month’s government consultation on the implementation of Section 40 reaches an unpalatable conclusion, the future of journalism, freedom of speech and democracy will have been irrevocably damaged.
Who will the whistle-blowers go to? How will the public’s right to receive information work? Who will campaign on your behalf? How will you exercise your right to freedom of expression?
You can help us in the fight against Section 40 by visiting www.freethepress.co.uk or by writing to your MP, calling on the Government not to implement a law that will end freedom of the press and introduce a new era of censorship for newspaper and the people we represent.