Hugh Tomlinson, chairman of pressure group Hacked Off, has accused regional papers of “scaremongering” over the proposed legislation, which could see publishers forced to pay both sides’ costs in a libel action even if they win.
Mr Tomlinson claimed there was “no evidence” that the change in the law would hit local newspapers and accused them of “dancing to the tune of their masters” in opposing it.
The QC said the Royal Charter under which rival regulator Impress is set up contains specific provision to protect local newspapers against the costs of arbitration where they have been caused serious financial harm.
Mr Tomlinson also singled out a Nottingham Post editorial criticising the plan as an example of the local press being used to “advance an argument against section 40 to shield the national press from the full operation of the balanced Leveson for audited self-regulation.”
However, Post editor Mike Sassi has criticised Mr Tomlinson’s claims, saying he “doesn’t understand local papers”.
Mike, pictured above left, said: “Like all local newspapers, the Nottingham Post receives dozens of complaints every year. The vast majority are dealt with amicably, often by us explaining to complainants how and why something has been reported. A small number are resolved with a swift clarification and, if necessary, an apology.
“However, if Section 40 were to become law, complainants would have a huge financial incentive to pursue us, knowing that even if they lose we have to pay their costs. The number of complaints would inevitably increase.
“Mr Tomlinson says his proposed arbitration scheme would be cheap. He neglects to mention that it would also be compulsory. His throwaway line that ‘costs need not rise above a few thousand’ will raise a wry smile in every local newspaper office, right across our financially-challenged industry.
“The overwhelming cost of dealing with a big increase in complaints, multiplied by ‘a few thousand’ each time, would inevitably lead to us publishing little, if anything, contentious. Local papers like the Post would be paralysed.”
Mike added that the Royal Charter provision would not benefit titles such as the Trinity Mirror-owned Post, because it is designed only for companies which don’t publish national titles as well.
The government has announced a consultation on the implementation of Section 40 which is due to conclude on 10 January.
Neil Benson, editorial director of Trinity Mirror’s regional titles, added: “The majority of Britain’s regional newspapers do not have national newspaper sister titles and yet they are also vehemently opposed to Section 40. From the larger groups to the small, independent news publishers, there is unanimous anger and concern.
“That is because the onerous and wholly unfair costs regime that Section 40 would introduce could pose an existential threat to titles which found themselves liable for both sides’ legal costs, despite having done absolutely nothing wrong. In addition, as anyone who understands the regional press knows, Section 40 would have a severely chilling effect on local journalism.
“The prospect of being pursued by ambulance-chasing lawyers, representing people with information to hide but with nothing to lose, no matter how spurious their case, and leaving innocent publishers to foot the whole bill, would be bound to curb the pursuit of public-interest stories.
“For all their sound bites, Mr Tomlinson and his friends at Hacked Off have singularly failed to explain how such a patently cock-eyed system would improve the standard of journalism or better serve the interests of the reader.”