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Editors attack ‘medieval’ regulation as MPs prepare for legal costs vote

mike-gilson-1A regional daily editor says his newspaper will not sign up for “medieval” statutory regulation even if controversial new libel costs legislation is brought in.

The House of Commons will vote today on the revised House of Lords costs sanction amendments to the Investigatory Powers Bill, modelled on Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013.

The enforcement of Section 40 could see publishers forced to pay both sides’ costs in libel or privacy actions even if they successfully defend a case in court, which critics have said could see the regional press “stripped of all news value.

Mike Gilson, editor of Brighton daily The Argus, has become the latest industry leader to voice his dissent over the clause, which would apply to any publisher not signed-up to an approved regulator such as Max Mosley-funded body Impress.

Said Mike, pictured: “We have had 300 years of a free press and there is no way a newspaper like The Argus will sign up for statutory regulation under a medieval Royal Charter which whatever critics say is under the control of politicians.

“It amazes me that some MPs even here in Sussex who purport to be liberal on many matters seem happy that Section 40 would land us with punitive costs in court even if we successfully defended a privacy or defamation action simply because we will not sign this charter.

“It will simply have a chilling effect on our reporting meaning we will not tackle important issues because of the threat of having to pay court costs to defend our entirely justified actions.”

Kentish Gazette editor Leo Whitlock has also warned of the consequences of the legislation being given the green light in a blog.

He wrote: “Ever since the phone and email hacking scandal rocked the world of journalism in this country, local newspapers like the ones I edit have been caught up in a whirlwind of unintended consequences.

“At best those consequences threaten our freedom to pursue legitimate stories and hold the powerful to account. At worst those same consequences threaten our very existence. We categorically did not engage in the already-criminal practices undertaken by some national journalists yet we are embroiled in the aftermath.

“Campaigners are obsessed with continuing to punish the national press for its transgressions – a public inquiry, prosecutions, punitive damages in the civil courts and a beefed-up regulator with the power to impose substantial fines is not enough for them.

“They, along with a number of parliamentarians, are pushing for changes to the law. Their myopia blinds them to the chilling and very real effects such changes will undoubtedly have on the wholly-innocent newsrooms of newspapers like my own.”

Leo, who also lectures in media law, equated the measure to having to pay a parking fine even though you had a valid pay and display ticket.

He continued: “The very real effect of this provision would be that anyone with an ounce of savvy or a lawyer, could threaten to sue us if we published a story they did not like. That expensive threat would force us to think again, take stock and probably hold fire for fear of being unfairly hit by huge legal bills.

“Vexatious complaints would effectively gag us. Our freedom would be curtailed and democracy, especially on a local level, would seriously suffer. Our readers have a right to know but our hands would be tied and our keyboards kept silent. The financial and structural challenges faced by regional media companies simply magnify the effect.”