Section 40 repeal: Press freedom and integrity are vital for journalists to hold power to account
Freedom of speech in the UK has never been under greater threat. Evolving privacy laws, data controls, and vexatious claims for defamation mean that journalists have to be as much lawyers as the eyes and ears of the public.
This, combined with often vile and threatening online abuse and trolling of public interest reporters if they dare explore a subject that does not meet favour with specific groups, means that no story worth telling is ever easy to relate safely. But the most pernicious threat of all has been Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act which could force publishers to pay both sides' costs in court actions - even if they won and successfully defended their public interest journalism.
The clause has never been enacted but all the time it remains unrepealed it hangs like the sword of Damocles over the heads of most journalists and their editors. It was dreamt up by government following the Leveson report into press standards and ethics of more than a decade ago which called for a new independent body to regulate the press.
The clause was intended to force British newspapers and their websites into joining a state-recognised regulator under the umbrella of a Royal Charter. However, it was always seen as the thin edge of the wedge by many local and national titles who feared it could open the doors in the future to more direct Government meddling. Many opted instead for tough regulation from the Independent Press Standards Organisation.
So many journalists who have campaigned against Section 40 from the outset will welcome the commitment in the King's Speech to “protect public interest journalism,” by repealing Section 40 through the inclusion of the Media Bill. The Conservative Party gave manifesto pledges in both 2017 and 2019 to protect the freedom and integrity of the press, and specifically the role of local newspapers in speaking truth to power, by repealing this draconian provision. It is to be hoped by those who truly value a free press and freedom of speech that repeal finally takes place.