Warning over £100m cost of '˜draconian' press regulation

The introduction of a law aimed at forcing local and national newspapers into a system of statutory regulation could cost the industry £100 million a year, the press trade body has warned.

NMA chairman Ashley Highfield said democracy 'would be poorer' if Section 40 came into force. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
NMA chairman Ashley Highfield said democracy 'would be poorer' if Section 40 came into force. Picture: Andrew O'Brien

The News Media Association (NMA) said that the “draconian” legislation, contained in Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, was an “unfair and undemocratic attack” on free speech that would have a “chilling effect” on newspapers’ ability to report on matters of public interest.

Submitting its response to the UK Department for Culture, Media & Sport’s consultation on press regulation, the organisation said the proposed law, which has been criticised by free speech campaigners as well as newspaper editors, would mean that newspapers outside of the state-recognised system of regulation would be forced to pay the costs of claimants in legal actions, even if the newspaper was found by a court to have told the truth.

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NMA chairman Ashley Highfield said: “Section 40 is designed to force newspapers into a system of state-backed regulation which the industry views as entirely unacceptable and incompatible with the principles of free speech.

“Not a single significant publication has signed up to Impress, the state-recognised regulator funded by one wealthy donor, with the vast majority of the industry choosing instead the new tough self-regulatory regime under Ipso which is independent of the industry and completely free from state control.”

Highfield, who is also chief executive of Johnston Press, owner of The Scotsman, added: “Section 40 would have a hugely negative impact upon the press industry both here in the UK and overseas. Newspaper titles would be forced to close and our democracy would be poorer for it. This harmful legislation must be repealed immediately.”

The Section 40 proposals, which have yet to be implemented, have divided opinion between those who believe the measures are “fair” and those who fear they will severely limit the scope for newspapers to conduct investigative reporting to expose corruption and wrongdoing.

Conservative MP Damian Collins, chairman of the Culture, Media & Sport Committee, has said that the legislation should not be implemented as it risks harming freedom of the press – and thus democracy – while filling solicitors’ coffers.

Collins said that while press regulation is an important issue, the “greatest threat” to the media’s credibility comes from the rise of “fake news” on social media and elsewhere, rather than from newspapers.

Most newspapers have signed up to Ipso – the Independent Press Standards Organisation – a regulatory rival to Impress that is funded by the press. Ipso has not sought official recognition, and would therefore be faced with paying plaintiffs’ costs under the Section 40 provisions.