Column: No bark and no bite if press hounds muzzled

Scales of justice will swing towards protecting those with things to hide if new legislation is enacted

Scales of justice will swing towards protecting those with things to hide if new legislation is enacted

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After more than two decades as a member of Her Majesty’s Press one of the main joys of newspaper life remains those days when we make a difference.

This week I was reminded of just such a story from the early days of my career while earning my spurs as a cub reporter for another newspaper.

Over a period of several weeks the newsroom started receiving calls from people concerned about a new pet shop.

The message was always the same and distressing for those on the other end of the phone. Animals kept in heart breaking conditions with little apparent concern for their welfare.

After gathering testimonies from readers and the authorities a call arrived from the owners of the business, unsurprisingly, making it clear our interest was not welcome.

Despite the tone of the call - and the threat of legal action designed to try to stop the paper from publishing - the story want to press with a front page splash.

The response was immediate.

Readers got in touch to shed more light on the puppy traders while others applauded the newspaper for bringing the outfit’s practices to light.

Other newspapers followed up the story, the authorities stepped in and it was not long before the operation was boarded up for good.

The owners were named, shamed, driven out of business and ultimately dragged before the courts. The business is long gone and no-one mourned its loss but the worry now is any local newspaper wanting to do the same sort of expose could soon also become a thing of the past.

Without doubt these rogue traders would have done anything within the law to silence the newspaper.

Indeed, laughably, they attempted to sue the local council for £750,000 for the damage done to their reputation despite investigators having more than 200 complaints lodged with them by people who had bought a pet.

Puppies which had died, others which had suffered illness and some sold as pedigrees for which the paperwork never turned up.

But what if the law had allowed the pet shop owners to bring action aimed at neutering the newspaper - no matter how spurious - knowing that even if they lost it would not cost them a penny as the editor would be liable to pay their legal bills.

One would think it was a no brainer, risk free for someone fighting to keep their, presumably lucrative, practice out of the headlines.

Knowing the newspaper would foot their sizeable bill for them regardless of the outcome or how vexatious the claim. They could - and would - lose the case but it would be the newspaper counting a potentially ruinous cost for holding them up to public scrutiny.

Sounds mad.

But this inversion of justice is the future if campaigners get their way.

From the fall out of the Leveson Inquiry a new piece of legislation is under Government consultation which threatens open ended financial penalty for newspapers.

Newspapers which have done nothing wrong and acted only in the greater good.

Papers printing something true and in the public interest would be halted in their tracks for fear of being challenged at the sort of great legal cost which could drive them to the wall.

Why would an editor take the chance of being hit with a four, five or six figure bill for a story which could be replaced on the page with something less controversial?

Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act of 2013 does not just threaten the future of important investigative journalism on national newspapers - it threatens the future of newspaper journalism at all levels and in all of its vibrant forms.

And the bitter irony is it is those newspapers in the local and regional press which Lord Justice Leveson agreed have done nothing wrong which have the most to lose in this cash strapped times.

To find out more and have your say visit our sister paper inews.co.uk/essentials/news/say-future-press-regulation/