The British government is preparing legislation that poses a serious, potentially lethal, threat to the freedom of the press.
The offending piece of legislation, known as Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, is a hangover from the Leveson Enquiry, set up a couple of years back in response to a series of press hacking scandals. Leveson introduced severe restrictions on newspapers, with penalties for offences. As serious as the Leveson recommendation were, this pending event is far worse. Newspapers are being urged to sign up to a new government-approved watchdog called IMPRESS, which would replace an existing body called the Independent Press Standards Organsation (IPSO). Under Section 40, those papers that decline to swear their allegiance to IMPRESS may be forced to bear the legal cost of fighting libel lawsuits EVEN IF THEY WIN THEM.
IMPRESS is championed by people who loathe the press. It is sponsored – and largely funded – by Sir Max Mosley, the son of the Sir Oswald Mosley, who, during the years leading up to the Second World War, and before he was interned as a threat to the nation, was leader of the British Fascist Party. The son evinces some of the same tendencies as the father. Sir Max is an implacable and strident opponent of the newspapers because one of them – the late and admittedly unlamented News of the World – exposed him as a regular attendee of orgies involving dominatrices, some of them dressed in Nazi regalia. Sir Max, perhaps understandably, has had it in for the press ever since, in which obsessive vendetta he has been aided and abetted by a number of other celebrities who have fallen foul of revelatory articles on their sexual and other peccadilloes, notably the actor Hugh Grant.
Section 40 is an unnecessary piece of legislation. The press is already adequately monitored and guided by IPSO, and if that sounds to some in the political establishment too much like self-regulation, victims of alleged press abuse have recourse to the courts, as they always have done. Britain, by the way, already has the strictest libel laws of any country in which press freedom is claimed as one of the pillars of its democracy.
It also has sinister implications. It is clearly designed to curb the investigative impulses of the press. Newspapers in Britain are under severe financial pressure from on-line news outlets as it is – a few are unlikely to survive the year, some commentators have warned – and none is likely to risk exposing malfeasances if doing so might have financially ruinous consequences. In recent times, this might have meant that we would not have been told about members of parliament cheating on expenses, or of the failures of child welfare agencies to protect children from abuse, or of the incidence of cheating in professional sports – to mention just a few.
Sir Max Mosley and others no doubt feel that the chips on their shoulders, and their right to avenge them, have been hard-earned, but there are bigger issues here than the embarrassment, or even the debatable rights, of a few public figures.
The proposed Act is a monstrous threat to democracy and freedom of speech. This writer can’t believe it is happening, even in the year of Brexit and Trump.
Can things get any worse? I ask myself.
You bet they can, I answer.