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Journalism under threat: Ten reasons we love what we do

By Mark Andrews | Business | Published:

A free press is vital to a healthy democracy both at a national and local level. The Shropshire Star is proud of its unbiased reporting of important news stories and its role within the community of Shropshire.

The Shropshire Star's Ketley headquarters

If our freedom is curtailed by punitive legislation then our ability to hold to account those people and organisations that run our public services is compromised. Here we outline 10 reasons that show why our role within the community is worth protecting.

1

Our investigative journalism has shone a bright light in dark places. In the past year we have revealed that children as young as five have been involved in knife crime, and how police in Shropshire issued 1,676 cautions in 21 months for crimes including firearms offences and drug trafficking.

We also exclusively revealed details of a leaked report which criticised the Probation Service for failing to pick up the warning signs surrounding Kevin Hyden, who murdered Wellington office worker Davinia Loynton after being freed from prison. We also uncovered how Shropshire Council issued 38,000 parking fines in three years, costing motorists nearly £1.2 million.

2

Our coverage of the campaign to ban “legal highs”. So-called legal highs were finally banned by the Government last year, following a tireless campaign by Telford’s Charlotte Delo who lost her brother to one of the substances.

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The Shropshire Star has covered Mrs Delo’s campaign from the beginning, and raised the issue during an interview with Theresa May.

3

Future Fit: Few subjects have generated as much passion as the proposed shake-up of hospital care in the county, and our unrivalled coverage has kept readers up to the minute with every development.

From the start we have untangled the complicated processes behind the changes, and kept readers fully informed in plain English about what it means for them.

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We have fearlessly investigated every angle of the debate, while remaining scrupulously impartial and holding both NHS leaders and politicians to account.

4

Cash For Your Community: Since its launch in 2015, the Shropshire Star and our partners at Enterprise Flex-E-Rent have distributed £60,000 to good causes across the area, with another £20,000 up for grabs this year. The money has been used to provide day care for the elderly, provide support for children with cancer, and pay for ground-breaking therapies for children with conditions such as cerebral palsy.

In addition to this, we have given out dozens of grants to sports clubs, youth organisations and community groups. As well as the financial support, Cash For Your Community has played a crucial role in raising the profile of many of these groups which do not always get the recognition they deserve.

5

The Pride of Shropshire Awards has given many unsung heroes in our communities the recognition they deserve.

Previous winners have also spoken about how winning the awards have also helped generate support for worthy causes that they are involved in.

6

We have taken the case for Shropshire to Britain’s political leaders, including Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Vince Cable. Our hard-hitting interviews with the people in power ensure that this wonderful county continues to have a strong voice in Westminster.

7

Our Christmas Toy Appeal has brought joy to thousands of children who would otherwise be finding Christmas a difficult time of year. Over the past three years, we have worked with our partners at Storage King in Shrewsbury to distribute more than 2,500 gifts to youngsters suffering from illness, disability or deprivation. But we couldn’t have done it without your help.

8

Our tireless campaigning for a better deal for the county. We fought for a direct rail link from Shropshire to London, which has exceeded all expectations since its launch three years ago.

Our Get Us Connected campaign has won national plaudits for the way it has raised the issue of poor broadband coverage in rural areas, and has led to pledges from the major providers to improve services. We’re still working on it.

In September we launched our campaign to turn the A5 into a dual carriageway from Shrewsbury to the Welsh border. Now it has been revealed that, thanks to lobbying and behind the scenes work by politicians and highways experts, an official bid is about to be put forward to have improvements made as part of a UK wide roads investment strategy.

9

Our superb sports coverage: Through our comprehensive coverage of Shrewsbury Town, AFC Telford and The New Saints, we follow the fortunes of our football teams through thick and thin, as well as Wolves, Villa and Albion. We also offer unrivalled coverage of Telford Tigers ice hockey and Shropshire County Cricket Club. But we also recognise that sport is not just about the big names, but also about the hundreds of dedicated men and women who participate in sporting activity every week. It is why we also provided detailed reporting on grassroots sports, which are scarcely covered elsewhere.

10

The Ladder for Shropshire has seen us team up with employers across the county to provide high-quality apprenticeships for more than 100 young people. The scheme has been praised by the Prince Andrew, Duke of York.

One nod from the Lords and 300 years of press freedom will be surrendered

Imagine being maliciously accused of a crime you did not commit.

Despite hiring the most expensive lawyers available, the claim is dismissed out of hand and you leave court without a blemish on your character.

Just one problem. You are asked to pay thousands of pounds for the privilege of being wrongly accused.

Absurd? Because that is pretty much the scenario that newspapers across the country will find themselves in if unelected peers get their way with the latest assault on press freedom.

This strange situation has come about because members of the House of Lords last month voted for an amendment that would turn a benign piece of legislation to prevent abuse of personal data into a back-door way for the Government to regulate the Press.

The Data Protection Bill, which is working its way through parliament at the moment, was originally about nothing more than updating laws about data privacy for the internet age.

But on January 10 the House of Lords voted to amend the legislation to include penalties for newspapers that did not “voluntarily” sign up to a state-backed regulator.

One of the proposed sanctions is that newspapers should always pay the costs of anybody who brings defamation actions against them, even when the allegations are malicious or unjustified.

Many in the industry fear this will bring an end to the tradition of investigative reporting.

Major exposes such as the MPs’ expenses scandal or the Panama Papers investigation into how the rich and powerful used offshore trusts to reduce their tax bills, could all be under threat.

David Pegg, an investigative reporter with The Guardian, says a change to the law would potentially open the door to the 70 people named in the Panama Papers report each lodging claims that would cost the newspaper £500,000 a time.

“Putting these numbers together, it is inconceivable that any publisher would embark upon an investigation such as the Panama Papers, let alone publish anything, in the knowledge that British law would require them to settle a £35 million tsunami of retaliatory defamation suits,” he says.

“Unscrupulous libel lawyers, guaranteed a payday at the Press’s expense, would have every reason to encourage their clients to sue.”

Damaging to local newspapers

The Government is opposing the peers’ intervention, and has pledged to overturn it when the bill returns to the House of Commons.

Culture Secretary Matt Hancock and Prime Minister Theresa May have both warned it could be particularly damaging to local newspapers such as the Shropshire Star.

Mr Hancock says: “This vote will undermine high quality journalism, fail to resolve challenges the media face and is a hammer blow to local press.

“We support a free press and will seek to overturn these amendments in the Commons”

Mrs May agrees, adding: “It would undermine high-quality journalism and a free press.

“I think it would particularly have a negative impact on local newspapers, which are an important underpinning of our democracy.

“I believe passionately in a free press. We want to have a free press that is able to hold politicians and others to account and we will certainly be looking to overturn this vote in the House of Commons.”

However, given the Government’s slim majority, there are real fears that the legislation could still slip through, which is why this newspaper is calling on readers to help us fight to retain our free press.

The peers will argue that its amendment will offer a “get out” clause to newspapers that agree to sign up to the government-approved regulator Impress.

Impress is one of two new regulators that sprang up in the wake of the Leveson inquiry and the phone-hacking scandal, the other being the Independent Press Standards Organisation, Ipso. Both regulators require their members to follow a strict code of conduct, and impose broadly similar rules that journalists are required to follow.

However, while both organisations offer ostensibly similar levels of regulation on their members, only Impress has chosen to receive official Government recognition. By contrast, Ipso has chosen to remain independent of the State.

Concerns

It is this distinction that has led to virtually all major titles, including the Shropshire Star, opting to be bound by Ipso’s code of conduct, the exception being The Guardian, which has not signed up to either regulator.

No major newspaper has signed up to Impress. Concerns have been expressed about the way the organisation has been funded, partly through a £3.8m donation from tycoon Max Mosley following his much-publicised dispute with the now-defunct News of the World. Many of its senior executives are also supporters of the controversial campaign group Stop Funding Hate, whose stated aim is to “take on the divisive hate campaigns of the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express by persuading advertisers to pull their support”.

However, the biggest sticking point is Impress’s decision to receive official government accreditation, which many feel is a step towards state control of the newspaper industry.

If the Lords’ amendment becomes law, newspapers like the Shropshire Star face an unenviable choice: either face up to vexatious litigation for printing the truth, or to surrender 300 years of press freedom by signing up to a government-backed regulator. No wonder the industry is concerned.

What it all means

It is a complicated issue, but it matters. Here are answers to some key questions:

Why is the industry worried about the Lords’ amendment to the Data Protection Bill?

This clause is nothing more than a means to force the industry into the system of press regulation by Royal charter which is unilaterally opposed for deep-held press freedom reasons. If this was brought into effect, the consequences for newspaper journalism would be catastrophic. Newspapers not signed up to a regulator approved by the Government-backed Press Recognition Panel (PRP) would be forced to pay all the costs of claimants in data protection actions, whether they win or lose the case in court.

Would it really make that much difference?

A study by the News Media Association indicates that similar proposals laid out in the Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which covers libel and privacy actions, would cost local and regional newspapers about £48 million. This is a conservative estimate and would be even higher for this latest attempt to regulate the Press.

But what does this mean for readers?

Newspapers like the Shropshire Star would not be able to survive if they were only able to run stories about the deceased and anonymised events. The threat of costly litigation would chill all newspaper journalism. Editors would be forced to be infinitely more cautious with practically all stories, resulting in bland and supine newspapers unable to investigate wrongdoing or hold the powerful to account on behalf of their readers.

Stories such as the Paradise Papers or the investigation into corruption within Fifa would be all but impossible to publish. Eminent QCs also say that Section 40 would be in breach of the European Charter on Human Rights.

If this measure is so bad, why not just sign up to Impress which is recognised by the Press Recognition Panel?

The industry holds fundamental objections to this because it amounts to state-sponsored regulation of the Press. The industry does not want to be part of a system established by the state and able to be changed by politicians.

The charter was written by politicians, brought into existence through the Privy Council underpinned by legislation and can be changed at any time by politicians. This is the thin end of the wedge to full-blown statutory regulation of the Press which is incompatible with press freedom in a democratic society. The regime would also force local papers into a costly arbitration scheme which would only increase the financial pressure on the sector.

Didn’t Leveson call for an arbitration service?

Leveson never recommended compulsory arbitration, he recommended a “fair, quick and inexpensive” system which is already provided by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

To all intents and purposes, Ipso is fully Leveson-compliant.

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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