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Government delays decision on libel costs changes till New Year

Karen BradleyMinisters have delated a controversial change to the libel laws which could be the “final nail in the coffin” of the regional press, the culture secretary has revealed.

Karen Bradley, left, told the House of Commons this lunchtime the time “has not yet been right” so far to implement the infamous Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013.

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.

In a statement to the House, Ms Bradley said the time was right to “look again” at the issue, and announced a 10-week public consultation from both the public and organisations affected by the proposed change.

Today’s statement follows the decision last week by the Press Recognition Panel to recognise the Max Mosley-funded body Impress as an approved press regulator, even though only a handful of small publishers have signed up to it.

The News Media Association, which represents national and regional publishers, is to challenge the decision in court.

Ms Bradley told MPs:  “It has hitherto been the view of government that as we wait for a number of elements of the new self-regulatory regime to settle in – such as the exemplary damages provisions of the Crime and Courts Act, the press developing an effective form of voluntary self-regulation, and self-regulators applying for recognition – the time has not yet been right to commence section 40.

“However, the [Press Recognition] Panel has recently recognised its first self-regulator, The Independent Monitor for the Press – known as Impress – which currently has around 50 members.

“Meanwhile, the Independent Press Standards Organisation – known as IPSO – regulates more than 2,500 publications, but has been clear that it will not seek recognition from the Panel.

“We think the time is right to consider section 40 further.”

A host of figures from the regional press have criticised Section 40, which has been described as “government-sponsored blackmail” by Scottish Newspaper Society director John McLellan and “the final nail in the coffin” of the regional press by Martin Trepte, editor of Theresa May’s local paper the Maidenhead Advertiser.

Responding to today’s statement, Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell said: “It makes sense that the Secretary of State is consulting all parties on press regulation as it is today. The Leveson Inquiry took place more than four years ago and inquired into events that had happened a decade or more ago.

“Over the past decade the economic and competive background has changed dramatically. It would be dangerous to open up local and regional papers particularly with threats of legal action thecosts of which they would have to pay even if they won a case, and which could put them out of business.

“A detailed look by government at the realities of regulation is the best way to ensure that individuals are properly protected without losing valuable watchdogs that expose corruption, wrongdoing and hypocrisy in the public interest.”

Ms Bradley also announced a consultation on whether to go ahead with that part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry, which was due to investigate specific phone hacking cases at News International once criminal proceedings were complete.

The consultation will run from today until 10 January 2017.