Thursday, December 29, 2016

In Defence of a Free Press.

A few weeks ago I informed the Whip's Office that I am totally opposed to Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act. At the time, the Secretary of State was considering whether to give effect to deeply worrying attempt to fetter our free press. Still considering it. And today I read an article on centre page of the Telegraph, where Jacob Rees-Maggie puts the case against far better than I ever could. There will be many more Conservative MPs of like mind. I certainly hope this iniquitous bit of legislation lies for ever in that huge pile of bad ideas that Governments have thought about before discarded after considered thought.

Perhaps I'm an unlikely champion of a free press, bearing in mind the things I've been accused of over the last 30 yrs. But I am. Determinedly so. To begin with, the personal criticism was hurtful. As a young man I was a sensitive flower. But I toughened up. Truth is that only those who think ill of us believe the negative stuff they read about us. But the Daily Mirror did hurt me. When 'Storm Leveson' was blowing its most fierce, the Mirror asked me to write 500 words in defence of our free press. I wrote the article and was rather pleased with it. And then the Mirror dumped me for Paddy Ashdown. I wouldn't have minded if it had been Jacob. But Paddy Ashdown! Yes that certainly hurt.

When I discuss my absolute commitment to a free press with constituents, to begin with they think I'm joking. Section 40 means that anyone can sue a newspaper about something it's published and even if the newspaper was entirely correct, it remains liable for the costs of the complainer. Totally outrageous. As Jacob writes, journalists guilty of writing the truth would be liable for the costs of those who were trying to hide it. Astonishingly, though unsurprisingly on second thoughts this does not apply to the BBC. Nor does it have impact on internet based news sites. The only way for a newspaper to avoid this outrage is for it to sign up to Government approved press regulatory body called Impress, which Jacob tells us is funded by Max Mosley. Section 40 would finish off our free press.

I've had local newspapers contact me about this threat to their existence. The economics of local newspapers has already been seriously undermined by the internet. Coincidentally, I was much interested in the example Jacob used in his article, where his local newspaper reported on the selling of unregulated commercial loans to farmers via a company called Acorn Finance. I have had farmers contact me about Acorn Finance. Responsible newspapers would be put in an impossible position - risk the very survival of the newspaper and jobs of its staff, or just don't report the story. Even if entirely true, it could be bankrupted. As editor, which choice would you take? I hope the Secretary of State will not give force to Section 40. So incredibly UN-British. It would signal the end of our free press.

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