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Midlands editors seek readers’ backing over Section 40

Keith HarrisonTwo Midlands regional editors have issued a broadside over the potential risks of planned changes to libel laws.

The government is currently holding a consultation on whether to enact the controversial Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which could see publishers forced to pay both sides’ costs in a libel action even if they win.

Keith Harrison, editor of the Express & Star, and Martin Wright, editor of sister title the Shropshire Star, both sounded warnings over the issue in first-person pieces published on Friday.

Both are urging readers to “speak up” for local and regional newspapers by responding to the consultation, which is due to end on 10 January.

Wrote Keith, left:  “Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 sounds innocuous enough, yet it’s not overstating the case to say this pernicious piece of legislation could bring about a catastrophic end to 300 years of press freedom in this country.

“If this law is passed newspapers such as the Express & Star face a worrying future.”

Added Martin:  “The root of this issue goes back to the Leveson Inquiry which followed the phone-hacking scandal. It is worth stating again that regional newspapers – including the Shropshire Star – played absolutely no part in that scandal.

“Indeed, Lord Justice Leveson in his findings exonerated the local and regional press stating: “The criticisms of culture, practices and ethics of the press that have been raised in this inquiry do not affect them: on the contrary, they have been much praised.”

The government is considering whether to introduce Section 40 following the Press Recognition Panel’s decision to approve the Max Mosley-funded body Impress as an official press regulator.

Under Section 40, any publisher who is not signed up to an official regulator could be forced to pay the costs of the unsuccessful claimant in a libel or privacy action as well as their own.

Added Martin: “Such costs would be crippling for the local press. At best, the constant threat of legal proceedings would stifle investigative reporting – and at worse even close titles.

“This strikes at the very heart of our democracy. Newspapers must be free to challenge, to hold those in power to account, without the prospect of financial sanctions hanging over them.”