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‘Libel costs change is government-sponsored blackmail’ says ex-editor

John McLellan 1A former regional press editor has hit out at proposed changes to the law on libel costs – calling it “Government-sanctioned blackmail.”

Ministers are currently considering whether to implement Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which could see publishers forced to pay both sides’ costs in libel or privacy actions even if they successfully defend a case in court.

Now Scottish Newspaper Society director John McLellan has joined the growing number of industry chiefs in attacking the plans.

John, a former editor of the Scotsman and Edinburgh Evening News, criticised the idea in a piece for Glasgow-based daily The Herald.

He wrote: “Amid Brexit, a second independence referendum and the collapse of the Scottish oil industry, I’m the first to admit press regulation is not gripping the nation as it did some years back but, for the happily disgruntled who need no invitation to give the UK Government a good kicking, may I present the Crime & Courts Act (CCA) 2013?

“It contains as bad a piece of legislation as it’s possible to imagine, tantamount to Government-sanctioned blackmail, which has its roots in the heady aftermath of the Leveson Inquiry when, having set the whole thing up in a rush, David Cameron was under pressure to act.”

“Cutting a long saga short, when it became clear no publisher of significance was prepared to sign up to any Government-backed scheme, an ‘incentive’ was included in the CCA whereby courts would presume any publisher not signed up to an official regulator would pay both sides’ costs in any case involving ‘news-related material’, win or lose.

“It effectively means anyone with a complaint against a newspaper not in the Government-approved scheme will be free to sue, while the publisher is exposed to potentially ruinous costs even if it wins.”

John said it was “plain wrong” that a framework was established in any area of law whereby there was a presumption the defendant would pay the entire expense as a result of something for which the court rules was justified, and that there would be a “chilling effect” on press freedom.

He added: “It exposes publications that had never had anything to with phone hacking or celebrity gossip to exactly the same punitive regime, from the Financial Times to the Westmorland Gazette and every publisher of ‘news-related material’ not in the government sanctioned system.

“The CCA does not apply in Scotland, but that does not mean a Scottish title cannot be pursued in the English courts if a story appears on its website. And as most Scottish titles are owned by UK-wide publishers, ultimately any financial damage from legal action in the South will have an effect here.

“So if Trinity Mirror’s Sunday Mirror and Sunday People are sued then the Stirling Observer and Ayrshire Post will eventually feel some of the heat.”

The Government-backed Press Recognition Panel will meet next week to decide whether to approve an application by Impress to become the recognised press regulator even though only a handful of micro-publishers have signed up to it.

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), to which most UK newspaper publishers have opted to subscribe, has made clear it has no intention of applying for recognition on the grounds that it amounts to state-sponsored regulation of the press.