Theresa May has vowed to repeal controversial plans to make newspapers pay both sides’ costs in libel actions if the Tories win the General Election.
The Conservative Party’s manifesto published today says it will repeal the infamous Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, originally designed to force publishers to sign-up to a ‘recognised’ system of press regulation.
The legislation would have seen media organisations having to pay the legal costs of both sides in libel and privacy cases, regardless of whether they win, unless they signed up to an approved press regulator under the government’s Royal Charter.
At present, the Max Mosley-funded body Impress is the only such organisation to have gained approved regulator status. The Independent Press Standards Organisation, which most national and regional publishers are signed up to, has refused to seek approved status on the grounds that it would amount to state regulation of the press.
Culture secretary Karen Bradley had already announced a consultation into whether to go ahead with the implementation of Section 40, and with polls showing the Tories on course for a comfortable victory the controversial clause now appears dead in the water.
In today’s manifesto the Tories also pledge to scrap part two of the Leveson Inquiry, which would have looked into the corporate governance issues which gave rise to the phone hacking scandal.
The manifesto states: “At a time when the internet is changing the way people obtain their news, we need to take steps to protect the reliability and objectivity of information that is essential to our democracy and a free and independent press.
“We will ensure content creators are appropriately rewarded for the content they make available online. We will be consistent in our approach to regulation of online and offline media.
“Given the comprehensive nature of the first stage of the Leveson Inquiry and given the lengthy investigations by the police and Crown Prosecution Service into alleged wrongdoing, we will not proceed with the second stage of the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press.
“We will repeal Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2014, which, if enacted, would force media organisations to become members of a flawed regulatory system or risk having to pay the legal costs of both sides in libel and privacy cases, even if they win.”
The move was warmly welcomed by the Society of Editors which has spearheaded the campaign against Section 40.
A spokesman said: “The role of a free press that is vociferous and investigative in holding power to account is something even its fiercest critics claim is vital in a democratic society and yet too many politicians have been steadfast in lending support to a piece of legislation which, if proposed in any other country, would have our democratic instincts up in arms.
“While the Society does not support any one political point of view, it is regrettable to see that other parties are fighting the election on manifestos which fail to deliver commitments to safeguarding freedom of expression.
“As many editors made clear publicly through their papers during the consultation process, Section 40 costs orders would have a seriously chilling effect on their work and, to put it simply, they would be less inclined to pursue investigations in the public interest when the risk of crippling legal costs would be increased.
“There has been an arduous 300-year battle to achieve press freedom and freedom of expression in the UK and we welcome the Conservative party’s recognition that Section 40 would be a giant step backwards.
“In a year in which the threat of such illogical legislation has seen the UK fall once again in the World Press Freedom Index, the repeal of Section 40 would ensure that other countries continue to look to the UK as a nation that upholds and protects the values it seeks to promote abroad.”
However campaign group Hacked Off denounced the move as “a wholesale betrayal both of victims of press abuse and ordinary members of the public.”
A spokesman said: “If this pledge is carried through, there will be no effective, independent regulation of the press in this country and no access to affordable justice for victims of press abuse. We wish to make it clear that those who have suffered at the hands of powerful and unaccountable newspapers will not tolerate this betrayal.
“It appears that the Prime Minister has stitched up a calculated deal to trade the interests of the public for favourable election coverage in powerful newspapers.
“We will fight throughout the next Parliament to ensure that the voices of ordinary people are heard above the megaphones of self-interested newspaper editors and proprietors. We will fight to ensure that the careful regulatory framework proposed by Leveson and agreed by Parliament is not systematically dismantled by a government subservient to newspaper editors.”