Media outlets will no longer have a “sword of Damocles” hanging over them once a law linked to legal costs is repealed, the Culture Secretary has said.
Lucy Frazer said the Government will “protect our free press” as she outlined moves in the Media Bill to scrap existing legislation that would require publishers to pay the legal costs of those who sue them, regardless of who wins, if they were not a member of an approved regulator.
The measures contained in section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 have not been commenced, but the Government will use the new Bill to repeal the clause so it cannot be introduced.
The Press Recognition Panel (PRP), an independent group established under the Royal Charter to approve press regulators, recognises only one body – Impress.
Most of the printed media and their online publications are signed up to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), a voluntary press-funded watchdog not backed by the Government.
Ms Frazer, speaking during the Media Bill’s second reading, told the Commons: “One of my central priorities as Secretary of State is protecting media freedom so our world-leading media can continue to thrive. This Bill puts media freedom at its core.
“One of the most significant measures in this Bill is the removal of a long-standing threat to that freedom – by repealing section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013.
“Section 40 and the possibility of publishers having to pay the legal costs of the people who sue them, even if they win, has hung over our media like a sword of Damocles. This Bill removes the sword for good.”
Ms Frazer added the “position is clear”, telling MPs: “We will protect our free press.”
Conservative former deputy prime minister Therese Coffey added: “There’s a lesson for us that quite a knee-jerk reaction to an inquiry (Leveson) that was very prominent in a public domain is not necessarily the best way to generate new legislation.
“I get it, look, I can see why people were so upset at the time and continue to be when it seems that the media has freedom to trash people’s lives and reputations.
“But it was not the right knee-jerk reaction to do and it was good we never commenced section 40 and that we are repealing it.
“What I would say though is, I would be very concerned if this led to a rush of newspapers suddenly departing from the process that’s in place under Ipso and I know there are some other newspapers who chose not to use Ipso or Impress, but we should not be actively encouraging that through this Bill.”
Conservative former minister George Eustice called for section 40 to remain and not be scrapped as the Bill proposes.
He said: “It’s also important to recognise that Leveson himself did not indeed recommend that we needed to take a legal provision through an Act of Parliament to give effect to these cost provisions.”
Mr Eustice continued: “I feel that the failure to commence the full architecture of the Leveson proposals was a terrible missed opportunity for the press, and I say that as somebody who’s one of the few members on these benches who actually first came into Parliament with a brown press gallery pass.”