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Boyz Lawyer: How the freedom of the press is under threat

Richard Hendron is an openly gay lawyer who spent nine years in the Met Police before leaving at the rank of inspector to retrain as a barrister. He is the director of the law firm, Defacto Legal, based in Soho. Here Richard writes how for the first time in 300 years, the freedom of the press is under threat by Section 40 Crime and Courts Act 2013.

As much as many loathe the press, through all their flaws and failings, the free press that we all enjoy in this country does play an extremely important role in holding the rich and powerful to account and exposing the truth. Most people barely give it a second thought, and take for granted the freedoms that the press enjoy. It’s these freedoms that allow the press to expose homophobes, racists and bigots of all descriptions. It’s these freedoms that have enabled journalists to expose MPs’ expenses, bribes of footballers and cricketers, doping in sport, misuse of public money and widespread child abuse such as what we saw in Rotherham.

However, the freedom of the press that we have enjoyed for some 300 years, and which without doubt has greatly assisted the advancement of civil liberties, including LGBT equality, is under real threat by Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013.

The government’s consultation on the implementation of S.40 of the Act has just closed. So great is the threat to freedom of the press, not to mention the slow erosion of our civilised society, that over 140,000 people responded to the consultation.

What will S.40 Crime and Courts Act 2013 require news organisations to do?

The Act, if given the green light, will require qualifying news organisations to sign up to an approved regulator called Impress, which is quasi state controlled due to its required membership of the Press Recognition Panel.

What if they don’t sign up to Impress? 

If news organisations don’t sign up to Impress and then are sued for libel, the organisation will be forced to pay the claimant’s cost regardless of the outcome. This will open up the floodgates for spurious litigants who want to make a quick buck, safe in the knowledge that even if they lose, their expensive lawyers will have to be paid for by the other/winning side.

A knock-on effect of that will be the willingness and ability of news outlets to run investigations, expose corruption, and hold the rich and powerful to account will diminish if not virtually fade away overnight.

News organisations could find themselves with huge legal bills even if they were cleared of any wrongdoing. Subsequently news would be tamed down and little investigations or exposes would happen due to the real threat of going out of business as a result of hefty legal bills. The only winners here are the litigants, bizarrely, even if they actually lose their case. This offends the principal of equality before the law and the rules of natural justice. Put simply, the risk of legal costs would be used to subvert truthful reporting.

Ben Cohen, chief executive of Pink News, has said that his organisation receives many vexatious complaints from the homophobes and transphobes or their sympathisers that the digital publication exposes. Mr Cohen fears S.40 would lead to these complaints turning into litigation, and despite no complaint against his organisation ever being upheld by the courts or other regulators in its 11 year history, his publications and those similar could be put under grave financial pressure by the crippling costs.

So why would news organisations not want to be controlled by regulator Impress? 

Firstly, there are issues over state control and the threat to a free press which that poses. Impress is required to sign up to the Press Recognition Panel so in effect is state regulated.

Virtually all major news outlets are signed up to an independent regulator, called IPSO, that has not succumbed to state control. Crucially, IPSO is funded by its members – which is the model suggested by Lord Justice Leveson’s report into press standards in November 2012.

Secondly, there are serious concerns over the motives and objectivity of Impress, which has been largely funded by the press hating tycoon Max Mosley. Mr Mosley has been on a personal mission to weaken the press ever since he ended up on the front pages of the News of the World due to a sex orgy he participated in.

Pink News’ Ben Cohen has said that it would be unethical of Pink News or indeed any other news outlet in the circumstances to submit to regulation by Impress.

But the press are not without sin and need to be held to account…

The press does need to take responsibility for its actions. That said, there is sufficient existing legislation on the statue books, be it criminal or civil, that provides a route to tackle inappropriate behaviour from the press. The answer is not to punish all and strangle press freedom due to the irresponsibility of a few. Rather more use should be made of the existing laws to bring those individuals to task within the press who act irresponsibly. As author Albert Camus said: “A free press can be good or bad, but most certainly without freedom, the Press will never be anything but bad.”

News in brief

Last anti gay law to be scrapped

Section 146(4) and 147(3) of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act allows for the dismissible of a seafarer on a merchant navy vessel for an act of homosexuality. Tory MP John Glen, who is leading the charge to have the outdated law that was only  introduced in 1994 scrapped, said: “Many will be surprised, astonished even, to learn that this still remains on the statue books.”

Journalist John Waters quits

The Irish Times journalist John Waters has quit journalism citing LGBT activists as his reason on why he left the profession. Speaking at a panel event he said: “I stopped being a journalist because of the LGBT campaign. They tried to present themselves as beautiful gentle people, but these people aren’t.” Mr Waters had strongly opposed same sex marriage and is currently embroiled in a legal dispute where he is suing TV broadcaster RTE after he was branded ‘homophobic’ on a chat show.

If you have a legal issue that you would like Richard to cover in Boyz, please email Richard.hendron@de-facto.co.uk, with ‘Boyz’ as the subject.

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