The UK Government has finally closed the Leveson Inquiry and will seek to repeal Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 which sought to introduce a punitive costs regime to civil court cases involving news publishers in England and Wales.
In making the announcement in the House of Commons this morning, Culture Secretary Matt Hancock said that the 174,000 responses to the recent Government consultation overwhelmingly supported the repeal of Section 40 and opposed the reopening of Leveson to re-examine the relationship between the Press and police.
Nearly 80 per cent of the direct responses opposed the triggering of Section 40 and just seven per cent were in favour. Two-thirds rejected a further Leveson probe against twelve per cent in favour.
Mr Hancock said: “Both these measures would have disrupted and destabilised the news media industry at a time when it is already grappling with the huge challenges of funding the provision of high quality journalism in the digital environment.
“It is now vital that similar, but potentially even more damaging, anti-press clauses in the Data Protection Bill are removed and we look forward to working with Government on its review into the press industry. We will find real, tangible solutions that create a sustainable future for journalism which the public expects and demands.”
Responding for the SNP, culture spokesman Brendan O’Hara, MP for Argyll and Bute, said: “The Scottish National Party is absolutely committed to ensuring that the practices that led to Leveson in the first place do not happen again…. We firmly believe that all individuals should have a right to redress when they feel that they have been a victim of malpractice. However, the Scottish Government have absolutely no plans to introduce statutory incentives for the press in Scotland to sign up to a state-approved regulator.”
SNS director John McLellan said: “Although Section 40 would only have applied in English courts, its effect would have been felt by those Scottish titles owned by UK-wide publishers and the principle of using a punitive costs regime to force publishers to join a state-backed regulator is being extended by Labour and Lib Dem peers to UK-wide data protection legislation.
“Imposing a system whereby publishers who refuse to join a state-backed regulator are punished by having to meet all costs of civil court action even if they win, flies in the face of natural justice and is little more than statutory blackmail.
“It is vital that the Lords amendments to the Data Protection Bill are thrown out as well and we welcome the SNP’s clear opposition to statutory incentives.
“We also welcome the end of the Leveson Inquiry, which would have cost millions more on top of the £6m already spent on part one, in addition to well over £40m spent on the various police investigations and prosecutions stemming from phone-hacking. The second part of the inquiry would have involved interviewing the same people who were extensively cross-examined in scores of criminal trials and so would have added very little to what we already know.”
Mr Hancock recognised the reform of self-regulation introduced by publishers and the Independent Press Standards Organisation, but also the challenges faced by local publishers in particular. He said: “Our local papers, in particular, are under severe pressure. Local papers help to bring together local voices and shine a light on important local issues – in communities, in courtrooms, in council chambers.
“There are also new challenges, that were only in their infancy back in 2011. We have seen the dramatic and continued rise of social media, which is largely unregulated. And issues like clickbait, fake news, malicious disinformation and online abuse, which threaten high quality journalism.
“A foundation of any successful democracy is a sound basis for democratic discourse. This is under threat from these new forces that require urgent attention.”
The challenges facing local journalism will be addressed by the UK Government’s recently announced review into the sustainability of high quality journalism, he added.
“At national and local levels, a press that can hold the powerful to account remains an essential component of our democracy. We seek a press – a media – that is robust, and independently-regulated. That reports without fear or favour.”