Just because The S*n says no, Labour shouldn’t say yes

In today’s article, Nathan Kelly gives us his analysis of Leveson Part 2. Originally from St Helens, Nathan now lives in Durham where he studies Politics Philosophy and Economics at the University there.

“An appalling piece of legislation”, spoke The Daily Mail in an editorial concerning Section 40 – the controversial press regulation legislation recently undergoing government consultation with the public. In an earlier vote upon the legislation, held in November 2016, Labour held a three-line whip in favour. Moreover, Labour unanimously backed Section 40 in the Lords helping it achieve a victory from the peers of 282 to 180. Alas, Labour ought not to support such legislation that could cause detrimentally negative impacts upon the British press – which has been free for 300 years – and should, instead, oppose section 40.

I shall now indulge, briefly, in an analogy:

Imagine you’re in a coffee shop – let’s support small business – a small, local, independent coffee shop. Having purchased a latte, you go to leave, just as someone knocks into you; causing your beverage to spill all over the floor. However, that person has also lost their beverage in the collision and decides to blame it on you, they speak to the manager to try and prove you were at fault. Alas, the manager – with you and the stranger – watches the CCTV footage and concludes that, indeed, you were not at fault and that it was the stranger’s actions that caused the two of you to lose your drinks. Phew, you’re off the hook. Yet, the manager then forces you to pay for both yours and the strangers drinks despite agreeing that you were not in the wrong. After being found innocent and blameless, you have to foot the bill for all involved – doesn’t sound particularly fair, does it?

Unfortunately, this is the reality British publications would face under section 40; our press would dissipate. If a publication were to print a story and be subsequently sued for libel, regardless of that cases’ outcome, the publisher would have to pay for both their own costs and the costs of those who sued them. Indeed, even if the publication legally proved they were allowed to print their story, they would be forced to pay the costs of their opponent – for doing nothing wrong.

The Guardian announced losses of £69 million in 2016, financially, the British press is in a bad way. An increase in legal costs – especially those which are entirely unjust – could force many publications to fold. Journalists would cease to uncover the truth and expose hypocrisy for fear that no publication would print their story and wish to risk the libel costs that would be associated with printing the truth. The Sunday Times recently claimed it would not have published Lance Armstrong’s doping story if the legislation had been in place; Armstrong would have certainly sued the newspaper, despite the story being true, and caused them great financial damage. Section 40, would usher in a culture of fear amongst publishers; fear to print the courageous journalism that makes up much of the British press because the potential financial risks would be all too great.

One of the largest proponent against section 40 is, indeed, The Sun. The Sun’s interest in opposing it largely lie in their staunch commitment to the exposure of C-list celebrities’ hypocritical private lives in their pages. Dismissing the loss of this as inconsequential is largely a matter of taste, however more significantly would be the potential loss of stories to other newspapers. The Guardian’s Panama papers leak was a sensational story exposing the wealthy of this world as tax avoiders who feel no commitment to society, David Cameron’s father was implicated. Had section 40 been in place, the claims on Cameron’s father may have never been printed – would a financially struggling newspaper really put itself in the fire of an expensive libel suit? The Spectator may have had second thoughts about publishing a story of the mismanagement of Kid’s Company by Camila Batmanghelidjh, had Batmanghelidjh been easily able to threaten the publisher with a costly legal case.

Those who experienced phone hacking deserve to be protected, but not by Section 40. Section 40 is an attack on the British press’ ability to expose political hypocrisy and business corruption. It should come as no surprise that Ian Hislop – Private Eye editor, and famously the most sued man in Britain – said of the legislation: “Dictators will love it.” The government has provided a means for publications to avoid the legal costs, they simply have to sign up to a state-approved regulator – currently, Impress. Alas, all publications have declined, the vast majority are with IPSO (Independent Press Standards Organisation) and a few others – The Guardian and Financial Times, et al – are self- regulated. Forcing the press to abide by the government’s will would be detrimental to their independence and compromise the press’ ability to criticise a government to whom they are ultimately beholden, government regulation infringes on a press liberty that has existed for 300 years.

Labour tends to get a rough time in certain areas of the press. However, the scorn towards tabloids should not inspire Labour to support section 40. Instead, Labour should proudly defend the freedom of the press, the integrity of journalism and the future exposes that would not occur if section 40 were enacted. As The Times, The Spectator, Private Eye, The Mirror, The Metro – who used their first ever leader column to oppose it – and many publications oppose section 40, so too should Labour.

Nathan Kelly

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