So you go to court, you win the case and prove you did nothing wrong. But you still have to pay – not only your costs, but the costs of your accuser too. Does that sound fair? It doesn't to me, and yet that is exactly what Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act could mean for newspapers such as the Shropshire Star,
The root of this issue goes back to the Leveson Inquiry which followed the phone-hacking scandal. It is worth stating again that regional newspapers – including the Shropshire Star – played absolutely no part in that scandal.
Indeed, Lord Justice Leveson in his findings exonerated the local and regional press stating: "The criticisms of culture, practices and ethics of the press that have been raised in this inquiry do not affect them: on the contrary, they have been much praised."
Yet we in the local newspaper industry continue to suffer the consequences of the phone hacking scandal.
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In Lord Leveson's findings, he proposed a new press regulator should be subject to Government approval through a state-backed recognition panel.
The vast majority of publishers – including the Shropshire Star – felt this raised the spectre of state intervention, compromising the freedom of the press.
So we chose instead to join the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso).
Since then, a rival regulator – the Max Mosley-backed Impress – has won official recognition under the terms of the Royal Charter. Leaving aside the obvious question of whether an organisation supported by an individual that has, to put it mildly, a difficult relationship with the press could ever be independent, the recognition of Impress could be a defining moment in the whole saga.
It means that should Section 40 be implemented, newspapers who have not signed up to Impress could be wrongly sued for libel or privacy, fight and win the case in court, vindicating their reporting, only to be forced to pay the costs of the unsuccessful claimant as well as their own.
Such costs would be crippling for the local press. At best, the constant threat of legal proceedings would stifle investigative reporting – and at worse even close titles. This strikes at the very heart of our democracy. Newspapers must be free to challenge, to hold those in power to account, without the prospect of financial sanctions hanging over them.
We should be able to expose corruption and to shine a light into areas that some would rather stay hidden. The Shropshire Star prides itself on the high standard of its coverage. Inevitably given the number of stories we carry each day, mistakes happen. But when errors are made, we are quick to correct and apologise.
Ipso is a robust, independent regulator that upholds the Editors' Code of Practice. It takes up complaints from members of the public, requires the prominent publication of corrections, and has the power to fine up to £1 million for serious enough breaches of the Editors' Code. It is not, as some would have it, toothless.
And now is the bit where we ask for your help. The government is in the middle of a 10-week consultation on section 40, running until January 10.
It is vital this consultation balances up the need to protect the rights of individuals, while still allowing newspapers to pursue stories in the public interest. Without this, the role of the newspapers like the Shropshire Star in exposing wrongdoing and upholding your right to know will be placed in serious jeopardy.
Every response counts, so please support us to ensure that the Shropshire Star – and newspapers like us – can continue to do our work unencumbered by this grossly unfair legislation.