The newspaper industry has estimated that a new “draconian law”, Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, would cost the industry £100m a year.
The News Media Association (NMA) said passing the act would represent an “unfair and undemocratic attack on free speech which would have a chilling effect on newspapers’ ability to report on matters of public interest”.
The NMA, which represents the majority of the UK’s national and regional newspapers, made the warning in its 88-page submission to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s consultation on whether to implement Section 40.
If passed, the new rules would mean publications not regulated by a government-approved organisation, Impress, would be liable to pay the legal costs of claimants in libel cases – even if they win the case.
The problem for newspapers is that they do not want to be regulated by Impress, taking issue with its funding and the laws under which it is recognised by the government.
Most newspapers are regulated by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), which has no interest in gaining official recognition because it would view this as a step towards state regulation of the press.
Ashley Highfield, NMA chairman and chief executive of local newspaper publisher Johnston Press, said:
Section 40 is designed to force newspapers into a system of state-backed regulation which the industry views as entirely unacceptable and incompatible with the principles of free speech.
Not a single significant publication has signed up to Impress, the state-recognised regulator funded by one wealthy donor, with the vast majority of the industry choosing instead the new tough self-regulatory regime under Ipso which is independent of the industry and completely free from state control.
Section 40 would have a hugely negative impact upon the press industry both here in the UK and overseas. Newspaper titles would be forced to close and our democracy would be poorer for it. This harmful legislation must be repealed immediately.