I have received several enquiries from constituents about the Media Bill and, in particular, the Government’s manifesto commitment to repeal Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013.
Freedom of the press is one of the pillars of our democracy, holding the powerful to account without fear nor favour; and a core principle of that freedom is that the press should be free from government interference. If commenced, Section 40 could force publishers to pay the costs of the people who sue them, even if the publishers win, unless they are signed up to a state-approved regulator.
Section 40 risks creating a chilling effect on freedom of speech, undermining high-quality investigative journalism, and causing serious damage to newspapers, who play a vital role in our democracy. A number of newspapers, including the Guardian and the Financial Times, have noted that Section 40 would hurt the sort of investigative journalism that uncovered the phone-hacking scandal that prompted the Leveson inquiry.
The majority of traditional publishers, including 95 per cent of national newspapers by circulation, are members of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), the independent regulator for most of the newspaper and magazine industry in the UK.
In addition, in the years since the Leveson Inquiry, many publishers have introduced comprehensive guidance on topics including accuracy and harassment. Where participating publishers fall short of their legal standards, IPSO offers support to victims of libel, slander or malicious falsehood in the form of low-cost arbitration, which offers quick access to fair and independent redress. IPSO can also act against publishers that do not comply with the Editors’ Code of Practice, as it has done on many occasions.
I note that you also raised the issue of SLAPPs, or ‘strategic lawsuits against public participation’. Powerful people have been able to weaponise the legal system to silence criticism, undermining free speech and public interest journalism. The Government has taken action to tackle the proliferation of these lawsuits, to ensure journalists can continue to hold power to account. This includes expanding the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists to deal with these legal threats and legislating to tackle SLAPPs concerning economic crimes in the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023.
I stood on a manifesto in 2019 that pledged to repeal Section 40 and support the Media Bill delivering this vital promise for public interest journalism, and our wider democracy.
I will closely follow the debate as the Bill progresses.