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Society of Editors voices fresh concerns over Section 40

John WhittingdaleIndustry leaders have voiced fresh concerns that the inconclusive result of last month’s General Election may mean the infamous ‘Section 40′ law staying on the statute book.

In their election manifesto, the Conservatives had pledged to repeal the controversial legislation, which would force publishers not signed up to a state-approved regulator to pay both sides costs in a libel action even if they won.

But former culture secretary John Whittingdale, left, warned last week that the government’s lack of a majority means the proposed repeal bill may never see the light of day.

The Society of Editors yesterday said Mr Whittingdale’s comments reflected their own concerns.

Delivering last week’s annual IPSO lecture, Mr Whittingdale said: “We have a government without a majority in parliament, and that obviously makes the government much less able to be sure of carrying through its legislation and actually makes it vulnerable to defeat.

“So even though the Conservative manifesto pledge still holds, I suspect that the “Crime and Courts Act s.40 Repeal Bill” won’t be seen for, certainly, the immediate future.”

The Society of Editors said in a statement: “The comments by John Whittingdale that the government is unlikely in the near future to fulfill its manifesto commitment to repeal Section 40 reflect the serious concerns of the newspaper industry.

“As recognised by both the former Culture Secretary and the thousands of people that responded to the Leveson consultation, Section 40 poses a serious threat to the survival of both the regional press in particular and investigative journalism as a whole.”

In his lecture, Mr Whittingdale went on to warn that the House of Lords may once again attempt to force through the implementation of Section 40 by tagging it on to other legislation.

The SoE said: “The fact that we now find ourselves in a situation where a former government minister is predicting the further hijacking of legislation by the House of Lords to push through this legislation is extremely worrying.

“Any further attempt during the next Parliament to force through costs provisions would rightly be judged as an appalling misuse of powers.

“It has now been more than three years since Section 40 has been wielded over the newspaper industry like the sword of Damocles and it is time that parliament united in recognising the genuine threat that the legislation poses and takes steps to repeal it with immediate effect.”

Mr John Whittingdale’s lecture can be read in full here.