The Scottish Newspaper Society has welcomed the rejection of a new UK law which could have introduced a punitive costs regime to any civil case in England and Wales involving allegations of phone hacking against a publisher. But it has also urged the SNP to clarify its position after its MPs backed the measure.
The amendment to the Investigatory Powers Bill passed by the House if Lords could have meant any publisher not signed up to a state-backed Press regulator could have faced paying both sets of costs in such cases even if it won. The measure mirrored those contained in Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, yet to be enacted, which presumes a publisher not part of the state regulation system will pay both sides’ costs in any case involving “news-related material.”
But after a debate in the House of Commons today (Tuesday), MPs voted down the IP Bill amendment by 298 votes to 261, although it won support from all Scottish MPs except Scotland Secretary David Mundell.
SNS director John McLellan said: “Even though the law would have applied only in courts in England and Wales, the financial implications for Scottish titles, most of which are owned by UK-wide companies, could have been considerable. In principle, it would have been enough for a claimant to accuse a publisher of phone hacking for the insurance of a cost-free case to kick in.
“While we are delighted the threat has been lifted, it is still extremely worrying that the principle of punishing the winner in any civil case by imposing costs has apparently been accepted by the SNP and the Scottish Government should clarify its position.”
During the Commons debate, SNP Justice spokeswoman Joanna Cherry MP QC said: “The protection afforded by section 40 when brought into force would be available to Scottish litigants who chose to sue newspapers based in England and Wales.”
She also claimed: “The limited amendments that we are discussing will not affect small or regional newspapers adversely at all, because they have not been involved in phone hacking.”
John McLellan commented: “It is disappointing that an eminent advocate such as Joanna Cherry should express enthusiasm for a measure so obviously counter to natural justice. If it is the SNP’s view that litigants should be afforded cost protection in any case against a news publisher, even if a court rejects the claim, then we need to know.”
All major Scottish newspapers pay a subscription to be regulated by the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which has refused to apply to become an approved regulator under the UK Government’s Royal Charter system. Another regulator, Impress, was granted Royal Charter approval last week even though it has only signed up one minor website in Scotland.
The SNS also welcomed UK Culture Secretary Karen Bradley’s announcement of a 10-week consultation into Press regulation. John McLellan added: “It is right that proper stock is taken after a period of considerable development and strengthening of Press self-regulation. A calm appraisal of the new reality of both Press operations and regulations is not before time.
“The key recommendation of the Leveson Report was that the Press established effective self-regulation, in other words that it regulated itself. This is precisely what IPSO is delivering.”