Over the past few weeks the national press has ramped up its dishonest and unprincipled campaign against the implementation of the Leveson recommendations. It finances and promotes something called “Free the Press” – which, among other things, offers a series of misleading and inaccurate graphics to place in anti-Leveson articles.
The newspaper owners apparently believe that repetition of the manifest falsehood that Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 is a “threat to press freedom” will persuade the large majority of the public who favour proper independent press regulation to change their minds. But they have a problem: public trust in the unregulated national press is at historic lows. Only 7% trust journalists at tabloid newspapers to tell the truth, the figure rising to only 11% for the Daily Mail and the Daily Express.
This is why the mistrusted national press needs its regional and local cousins to support its battle against proper regulation. The level of trust in local journalism is more three times greater than in the Daily Mail (36%). So, the local press has been pressed into service in the “anti-Leveson campaign”.
In a recent post I suggested that the local press were being used as “human shields” by the nationals in their unprincipled fight to avoid proper regulation. I gave as, as an example, a Nottingham Post article entitled “Resist this threat to your local newspaper’s survival“. I pointed out that this advanced two “anti-Leveson” arguments
- That joining a recognised regulator would commit it to a “potentially expensive” arbitration process
- That IPSO did not seek recognition under the Leveson process because “it believes it would be submitting to state regulation”.
I suggested that the first argument had no evidential support and the second was patent nonsense.
The editor of the Post, Mike Sassi, was stung by the human shields “jibe” and spoke to Hold the Front Page which, the day after my post published a piece entitled “Regional editorial chiefs hit back over Section 40 ‘human shields’ jibe”. The “regional chiefs” in question were Mr Sassi and his boss, the editorial director of Trinity Mirror’s regional titles, Neil Benson. Both Mr Sassi and Mr Benson are long standing members of the Editor’s Code of Practice Committee and so are hardly impartial observers.
Neither Mr Sassi nor Mr Benson address the second argument at all. The contention that the Leveson “recognition process” is “state regulation” is indefensible and Trinity Mirror knows it.
The substance of the response concerns the first point: the potential cost of the arbitration process – although Mr Sassi carefully avoids the detail of this, concentrating his comments on section 40 which, of course, has positive costs consequences for newspapers which join a recognised regulator.
Mr Sassi says that that I “don’t understand local papers”. He then volunteers the obvious and unsurprising information that the Post receives “dozens of complaints every year” – with the vast majority being resolved amicably and a small number with a clarification or apology. However, he says
“if Section 40 were to become law, complainants would have a huge financial incentive to pursue us, knowing that even if they lose we have to pay their costs. The number of complaints would inevitably increase”.
He later goes on to say that
“The overwhelming cost of dealing with a big increase in complaints, multiplied by ‘a few thousand’ each time, would inevitably lead to us publishing little, if anything, contentious. Local papers like the Post would be paralysed.”
There are a number of problems with all this:
- Mr Sassi has carefully avoided telling us how many of the complaints the Post presently receive actually raise potential legal claims. It seems likely that the answer is “very few”. In other words, the Post’s current output gives rise to a small number of legal issues every year.
- If, as seems to be the case, the Post rarely libels people or invades their privacy, it is difficult to see where the “big increase” in complaints is going to come from. If people bring bad complaints (whether in the Courts or in an arbitration scheme) they will be struck out and they will have to pay the costs.
- At present, if the Post commits an arguable legal wrong a High Court claim can be brought with the benefit of a Conditional Fee Agreement and After the Event Insurance – with potential legal costs of hundreds of thousands. Such claims have not been brought – doubtless because the Post engages in proper and careful journalism. If the Post joined a recognised regulator it would have protection against the costs of such claims.
- The idea that the Post’s journalism will be hamstrung by the cost of dealing with all the new complaints is pure make-believe. It scare story without any evidential basis.
Mr Benson does not bother with even the poor arguments advanced by Mr Sassi. He confines himself to pure, unsupported and misleading assertion
“the onerous and wholly unfair costs regime that Section 40 would introduce could pose an existential threat to titles which found themselves liable for both sides’ legal costs, despite having done absolutely nothing wrong. In addition, as anyone who understands the regional press knows, Section 40 would have a severely chilling effect on local journalism”.
The prospect of being pursued by ambulance-chasing lawyers, representing people with information to hide but with nothing to lose, no matter how spurious their case, and leaving innocent publishers to foot the whole bill, would be bound to curb the pursuit of public-interest stories”.
But all this is based on the assumption that local newspapers will do the bidding of the national press and refuse to join a recognised regulator. Of course, if local newspapers do join such a regulator they face no adverse costs orders and receive costs protection against rich “libel bullies”. There is no “chilling effect”.
Local and regional newspapers are still respected and trusted by the public. They risk losing that respect and trust if they allow themselves to be used by the corporate national press to defend the indefensible.
Hugh Tomlinson QC is the Chair of Hacked Off, the campaign for a free and accountable press which is urging supporters to respond the Leveson implementation consultation.