Newspaper costs move may be put on hold, John Whittingdale signals
Plans to force newspapers to pay court costs in libel and privacy cases, whether they win or lose, may be put on hold, Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has signalled.
The costs provisions - coupled with new powers for judges to hand down "exemplary damages" on publishers which refuse to sign up to an officially recognised regulator - were recommended by the Leveson report into media ethics, but were last week condemned by the Free Speech Network as "the most substantial threat to press freedom in the modern era".
Now Mr Whittingdale has told newspaper editors that his "mind is not made up" on whether to press ahead with the introduction of the provisions on costs when the Crime and Courts Act comes into effect on November 3.
He urged the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) - the industry's self-regulator which was set up in the wake of the Leveson report - to sign up to the recognition panel created last year under a royal charter.
This would have the effect of exempting its members from both the costs provisions and the threat of exemplary damages, but is resisted by many media organisations who are wary of a regulation system underpinned by the state.
Speaking to the Society of Editors in London, the Culture Secretary acknowledged that the loss of the ability to claim back costs would be "a serious and significant" change for the industry, and was causing particular concern to "many small publishers who had absolutely no involvement in the abuses the Leveson Inquiry was set up to tackle".
He added: "I have to say that at the moment I am not convinced the time is right for the introduction of these costs provisions. Given the changes under way within the industry, the introduction of the new exemplary damages provisions and the pressures on the industry, I question whether this additional step, now, will be positive and will lead to the changes I want to see.
"My mind is not made up, and I will want to examine the matter further in the coming weeks before taking any decision."
Mr Whittingdale acknowledged that Ipso was "tougher (and) more independent" than the Press Complaints Commission which it replaced in 2014.
But he added: "Let me be very clear: I would like to see the press bring themselves within the royal charter's scheme of recognition. What is key is that we should have a regulator that is tough, independent, fully subscribed and that commands confidence.
"I want us to continue to have a press that is a thriving part of our free society. And I want journalists and editors to take their responsibilities seriously. It is those aims which will continue to be my guiding principles."
It was "a matter of concern" that some media groups - which include the publishers of the Guardian, Financial Times and Independent - were still outside the self-regulatory system, said the Culture Secretary.
He said the threat of exemplary damages was a "serious sanction" which would provide a "real incentive" for newspapers to sign up to a regulator recognised by the charter-backed panel.
Mr Whittingdale also welcomed the BBC's proposal to commission stories and pictures about councils, courts and public services from local newspapers as a measure to sustain grassroots reporting.
Voicing his support for the freedom of the press, Mr Whittingdale said: "A free press is one of the pillars of a free society. Abuse of power, corruption, lies and ignorance all thrive in the absence of an inquisitive and informative media.
"Journalists have a vital role in a functioning democracy. Voters need to know what is going on if they are to make informed decisions. It is the job of the press to hold those in elected office to account. And if we are to maintain confidence in our judicial system then justice must be done, but must also be seen to be done."