The government has confirmed plans to repeal section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 in today’s King’s Speech, which sets out the main threads of government plans for the next year ahead of the state opening of parliament.
Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer outlined her “commitment” to its repeal earlier this month, while King Charles said in his speech that the government would bring forward legislation to “protect public interest journalism.”
Section 40 was a key part of the cross-party agreement to implement the Leveson recommendations for independent press regulation which supporters say encouraged newspapers to become independently regulated via an approved regulator and ensure that the public are protected from press intrusion.
Section 40 would also help protect regulated newspapers from Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs, which the European Centre for Press and media Freedom claims “target and restrict journalists and media workers” and “enable powerful and wealthy litigants to stifle legitimate criticism through the abuse of existing laws, most notably, defamation.”
Leveson’s recommendations had the support of the NUJ and other journalism and press freedom organisations, although many national newspaper owners and editors opposed them.
All parties promised to implement the system to raise press standards in 2013, and 125 publishers have since signed up to the Impress, the only approved regulator set up in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry.
Several nationals, including News UK’s The Sun, Daily Mail and General Trust, and Telegraph Media Group joined the voluntary funded Independent Press Standards Organisation, set up in 2014, instead.
Among those celebrating the planned repeal was The Sun, which led on “Gov finally legislates to tear up hated rules that would be the death knell of Britain’s free press,” noting that “publishers would have to pay expensive legal costs in both defamation and privacy cases for both sides if they don’t sign up to an approved regulator.”
The Hacked Off Campaign, which was established in 2011 in response to the phone-hacking revelations that spurred Leveson and campaigns for a free and accountable press for the public, was in less celebratory mood.
Hacked Off CEO Nathan Sparkes said: “Section 40 underpins the Leveson system of independent press regulation and is critical to upholding the rights of the public, protecting people from lies, intrusion and other abuses in the press, and ensuring that newspapers can defend themselves from wealthy litigants. It is vital to upholding the interests of the public as well as the freedom of the press.
“National newspaper owners’ opposition to the measure is based on a self-interested obsession with avoiding accountability at all costs. The Government’s plan to repeal section 40, announced today in the King’s Speech, is a cynical attempt to bribe national newspaper owners ahead of the next election in the hope of receiving more favourable coverage in return.
“It is utterly desperate stuff from the Prime Minister, who is prepared to abandon the victims of press abuse, over 200 independently regulated newspapers and the cross-party agreement on press standards, all to curry favour with the press barons.
“We are confident that voters will see straight through this grubby and self-serving attempt at retaining the support of the national press and will be working with our supporters across the country to expose it for what it is among the public.
“Parliament has a history of standing up to the Government on this issue, and we encourage all politicians of integrity to be prepared to take a stand again.”