UK Government Rightly Called To Account On Press Freedom Protection Racket

It's a funny old situation when the Government has to blackmail newspapers to bring them to heel. The law that has already launched state-backed regulators is being followed up by a sting in the tail. Newspapers can sign up to a regulator that accepts the Royal Charter or go their own way and be liable to both sides' legal costs in any privacy and libel action, regardless of the outcome. 

For Max Mosley, the founder and funder of the only state-backed regulator, Impress, to come out and say that such rules are fair is frankly ridiculous. In what other aspect in life would it ever be considered right and reasonable that somebody could accuse you of something and take you to court with absolutely no comeback on them? If you pay their costs and your own, they simply can't lose. If you bottle it and pay up to save on legal courts, they win. Or if they go to court, there is no situation in which they lose because their costs would be met by the very person they are accusing. 

Surely every legal case requires an element of risk on both sides, or everyone would be suing anyone they fancy? Just look at what has happened with the "slips and trips" industry where no win, no fee is the norm. This is exactly what the Government is suggesting should happen to the UK press. it surely has to be the bluntest of hammers to take to press freedom. 

Impress and the Government point out that the double whammy on court fees can be avoided if newspapers sign up to a Royal Charter-approved regulator, but that is a little like the scene is a mafia movie where the mobster says they won't pull your toenails out if you do as they say.

The crux of the issue is not just that the newspaper industry likes self-regulation -- that's only half the story. The real issue is that it wants to avoid being regulated by parliament through a Royal Charter. When these are the people the press believes they are duty bound to probe and investigate, it makes no sense to be answerable to them -- no matter how remote, subject to guards and "light touch" supporters claim Royal Charter oversight would be. You can argue the point many times over, but effectively it all comes down to newspapers not wanting a regulator that is answerable by any means -- however remote -- to the powers that be. It really is that simple. That is why Max Mosley's Impress is largely the preserve of local papers and magazines that have been scared in to signing up to protect from potentially title-closing legal cases.

Speaking of court, let's reflect on a crucial point, right here and now. There have been abuses by the newspapers, as summed up in the shameful episode of the phone hacking trials running around the same time as those accused in public office taking bribes from journalists were taken to task. The key here is that all these things were, by definition of a series of court cases, already illegal. You don't need extra regulation to enact laws that already exist. 

Did you know that journalists are the only people in the UK who are presumed guilty by the very nature of them having to prove their innocence when accused of libel or slander? It kind of makes sense when you consider that the accusation has already been written or spoken, and so it then comes down to the writer or broadcaster to back up the claim. It's rather ironic, however, to remember that the only people exempt from libel and slander laws are the members of the Houses of Parliament speaking within the Palace of Westminster.

Now, though, blackmailing papers in to signing up to Royal Charter approval has to be a step too far. I seriously can't see the Government taking the papers on. As it prepares to renegotiate a trade deal with the EU, largely with the support of the national press, is this a fight it wants to pick. Can Theresa May stand up and say that asking papers to pay both sides' fees in any privacy or libel action is fair? I doubt it. She's going to need the press on-side to sell-in whatever deal her team can negotiate with the EU. I sense a backing down following on from the current consultation period which ends next week. For the same of common sense, i hope so.

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