Owen Paterson quotes the founding father of America Thomas Jefferson when he refers to the role of newspapers and the press.
He said: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
But former cabinet minister Mr Paterson warns that under the latest measures being considered by Government, Britain’s fierce and independent press could be left unable to write about anything more controversial than the standard of cakes at the village fete.
Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act does not roll off the tongue in the way that Brexit does.
And the finer points of media regulation probably don’t resonate with the man in the street in the same way as issues such as immigration or the NHS.
But if the Government decides to go ahead and put Section 40 into action, it is something that will affect every single reader of this newspaper – because it will place draconian constraints on what information we can and can’t share with you. In short, it means we could be punished for telling the truth.
Stories such as the controversy about the Future Fit hospital proposals, the troubles of Shropshire Council’s IP & E venture, and the fall-out from the Operation Chalice investigation into child sex abuse could all become a thing of the past if the Government chooses to activate Section 40.
So what is Section 40? Well essentially it means that newspapers will be obliged to pay the legal costs of anybody who sues them for libel, regardless of whether the complaint is justified or not. Even if a judge ruled the complaint was spurious or malicious, and that the story in question was entirely accurate, it would make no difference. The newspaper would have to pay for the privilege of being sued.
Surely there must be a get out clause? Well up to a point. The law would give protection to newspapers that sign up to Impress, a state-approved regulator part-funded by controversial tycoon Max Mosley. But no newspaper worth its salt would be prepared to compromise its independence and integrity in that way. To date, not a single major publisher has signed up to Impress.
A handful of papers – most notably The Guardian and the Financial Times – have said they will regulate themselves. But the vast majority, the Shropshire Star included, agreed to be regulated by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso). The Ipso code of conduct is similar to that of the state-approved regulator, but is independent of any political control.
At the moment, Culture Secretary Karen Bradley is consulting the public on whether to implement Section 40, but the consultation ends on Tuesday next week. North Shropshire MP Mr Paterson, and his colleague for Montgomeryshire Glyn Davies have both pledged to fight the proposals.
“It would effectively be the end of the free press,” said Mr Davies.
“Journalists guilty of writing the truth would be liable for the costs of those who were trying to hide it.
“I’m seriously upset, I think it’s terrible. I’m seriously opposed to it, I’ve told the whips within my party that I’m totally against it.”
Mr Paterson also says he feels very strongly that the Government must not implement Section 40.
“It’s completely wrong that if Section 40 goes through, someone can sue a newspaper and, even if they lose, they will have their expenses paid. If newspapers are not able to raise particularly large amounts of money they will be completely killed off.
“Realistically, papers will be reduced to talking about cake and jelly stalls at the village fete – they will be terrified about offending anybody.”
Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who contested The Wrekin seat at the 2001 General Election, is also fiercely opposed to the implementation of the law.
“It is hard to believe that a free democratic state passed a law that fines people for telling the truth,” he says.
“It would make the courts impose costs on a newspaper that told the truth if it had not been agreed to be regulated by a government-approved body.
“If they can always be sued at no cost to the complainants then they will not dare to report on the failings of the moderately well-off for the fear of facing costs that would bankrupt them.
“Anyone could go to court and have a free ride against a non-government paper for any story that he or she did not like.”
Labour MP Kate Hoey warns it will be the death knell for the British newspaper industry, and would be a hammer blow for democracy.
“The first move of any dictator is usually to curb the press and allow only what is perceived as suitable reading for their people,” she said.
“The Secretary of State is being bombarded by a campaign led by those who wish to ensure that you, the public, are not told about any of the activities of rich, powerful, or famous people that might damage their carefully crafted public image.”
Tom Slater of the free-speech website Spiked – which will not be affected by the proposals – says it is essential that those concerned about press freedom make their feelings known.
“We can’t let this quiet coup happen,” he said.
“Press freedom is the bedrock of a democratic society, a principle that rabble-rousers and dirt-diggers throughout history have risked life, limb and liberty to fight for and defend.
“It is in this tradition that Spiked, with other publications committed to defending this most fragile and precious freedom, is calling on the British public to respond to the consultation.”
Addressing a committee in the Commons in October, Culture Secretary Mrs Bradley acknowledged there were genuine concerns.
She said: “I could do an ideological position on this, but the implications of being ideological may be that we see a vibrant free local press being affected. It has been put to me very clearly by a number of editors of local newspapers that the exemplary damages section of Section 40 could see them being put out of business and certainly would impact on their ability to do investigative journalism.”
Miss Hoey said she hopes Labour will oppose the measures to ensure the rich and powerful are held to account. She warned: “Very quickly the choice every newspaper will face will be to submit to state regulation under Impress, drop any investigative activity at all, or shut down.
“Shutting down will be the only honourable option. The UK will lose not just a free press, but any print press at all.”
This should be assigned to the Government’s bin of bad ideas, says Glyn Davies MP
MP Glyn Davies knows his actions will be followed closely by his local newspapers. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
"A few weeks ago I informed the whip’s office that I am totally opposed to Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act.
At the time, the Secretary of State was considering whether to give effect to a deeply worrying attempt to fetter our free press. She is still considering it.
There will be many more Conservative MPs of like mind. I certainly hope this iniquitous bit of legislation lies for ever in that huge pile of bad ideas that governments have thought about before discarded after considered thought.
Perhaps I’m an unlikely champion of a free press, bearing in mind the things I’ve been accused of over the last 30 years. But I am. Determinedly so. To begin with, the personal criticism was hurtful. As a young man I was a sensitive flower. But I toughened up. Truth is that only those who think ill of us believe the negative stuff they read about us.
When I discuss my absolute commitment to a free press with constituents, to begin with they think I’m joking.
Section 40 means that anyone can sue a newspaper about something it has published and even if the newspaper was entirely correct, it remains liable for the costs of the complainer.
This is totally outrageous. Journalists guilty of writing the truth would be liable for the costs of those who were trying to hide it.
Astonishingly, though unsurprisingly on second thoughts, this does not apply to the BBC. Nor does it have impact on internet-based news sites. The only way for a newspaper to avoid this outrage is for it to sign up to government-approved press regulatory body called Impress, which is funded by Max Mosley. Section 40 would finish off our free Press.
I’ve had local newspapers contact me about this threat to their existence. The economics of local newspapers has already been seriously undermined by the internet.
Responsible newspapers would be put in an impossible position – risk the very survival of the newspaper and jobs of its staff, or just don’t report the story. Even if entirely true, it could be bankrupted.
As editor, which choice would you take?
I hope the Secretary of State will not give force to Section 40. It would be so incredibly UN-British.
It would signal the end of our free Press."Subscribe to our Newsletter