CP editor Alan Marriott warns publishers could face paying crippling court costs, regardless of whether they were guilty or innocent.
IMAGINE if your neighbour wrongly decided you had stolen part of his garden and took you to court to get it back.
Sensibly, you engage a solicitor, the case goes to court and eventually it is thrown out.
In most instances, you, being the innocent party, get your (probably substantial) costs paid by the neighbour.
That is how justice works and has done for many years. If you are not guilty, you don’t have to pay.
However, a new piece of legislation will mean the County Press, and hundreds of newspapers across Britain, will have to pay up if sued for libel, breach of confidence, misuse of private information or harassment, even if they are found not guilty.
That we should pay up is fair and right IF we have broken any of these laws but when we haven’t, why should we pay the other side’s costs — and in a libel case these can easily run to tens of thousands of pounds?
So, why is this happening?
In the wake of the scandals of phone hacking by national newspapers and the subsequent Leveson Inquiry into press standards, two new press regulatory bodies were set up.
These are IMPRESS, a Royal Charter (ie government and politicians) approved body that none of the mainstream national or local press have signed up to; and the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) the County Press, with hundreds of national and regional titles, have signed up to as a body which holds us to account but, at the same time, recognises the need for a press that can fulfill its primary role of being a free and unfettered media able to keep a watchful eye on those with their hands on the power and the money.
One of the consequences of the Leveson Inquiry is a poisonous portion of legislation, Section 40 of the Crimes and Courts Act 2013, which is already in place but currently lies dormant, posing one of the biggest threats to the County Press in its 132-year history.
Any publisher not signed up to the Royal Charter (and that includes us) could be forced to pay both sides’ legal costs in any action against them — regardless of whether they are innocent or guilty.
If the press is to be free, the state has no role in regulating what is published. While signing up to a regulatory body is allegedly voluntary, the sanctions contained in Section 40 would constitute state coercion of the press.
It also gives those suing a newspaper, magazine or website, carte blanche to launch legal proceedings, without having to consider the consequences if their action was frivolous, mischievous or just motivated by greed or malice.
Section 40 currently lies dormant and the secretary of state for culture, media and sport, Karen Bradley, is nearing the end of a ten-week consultation on how to proceed with it.
She could let it lie, which will not go down well with those who fear the press (and this is probably aimed much more at the national papers than ourselves), or she could activate it, meaning papers such as ours will be facing a very uncertain future, with anyone holding a grievance (however unjustified) able to take legal action, knowing we will have to pick up their and our own legal bill, as well as any sanctions imposed.
The County Press employs around 70 people to bring the IW a newspaper we can be proud of. We outsell any other weekly paper in the country, not just because we do a good job, but because Island people care about what happens to their friends, family and neighbours.
We are not just here to report on the fun stuff (carnivals, festivals and school events) but also the serious matters, such as how our council, MP and health services perform on our behalf, how our elderly are treated in care homes and how well our kids are being educated.
And one of our most important duties is covering the courts, so those who break the law are rightly held to public account.
If there is no County Press, who is going to tell you what is going on? This piece of 'ambulance chasing’ legislation provides a serious threat to the very fabric of local democracy.
I know the actions of some sections of the national press have been pretty despicable in the past but just ask yourself these questions:
Has the County Press ever hacked a phone? NO.
Has the County Press uncovered plans to close down the Beacon Centre at our only hospital? YES.
The regional press was recognised by Sir Brian Leveson as being exemplary in the way it conducts itself.
We are making representations to the government but you can join us in the fight to repeal Section 40, by adding your views on line at tinyurl.com/IWCP-LAC or write to Press Policy, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 4th Floor, 100 Parliament Street, London, SW1A 2BQ.
Let’s not let this ill-judged bit of law making put our future at risk.