Claire Wilde reports on a little-known piece of legislation that endangers the freedom of the press and could prevent local newspapers like the Telegraph & Argus from investigating wrongdoing and publishing stories that protect the rights of its readers.

IF a local council, health authority or other public body is wasting your money, you want to know about it, right?

And if there’s a cover-up, or corruption or criminal behaviour by those in positions of authority, you want it to be exposed?

Well, the ability of local newspapers like the Telegraph & Argus to do just that is under threat like never before.

An obscure piece of legislation could be used to impose crippling legal costs on newspapers and magazines in the wake of libel or privacy trials – even when what they print is the truth.

In the words of Shipley MP Philip Davies, Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act threatens to “allow rich bullies to threaten newspapers into not printing stories about them – even though true and in the public interest”.

Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act could force newspapers like the Telegraph & Argus to pay the costs incurred by both sides in a libel case even if the newspaper wins and is able to demonstrate in court that what it reported was accurate and publication was in the public interest.

In other words, the freedom of the press and the public’s right to know – two of the cornerstones of modern democracy – are both under threat.

How can this be?

The phone hacking scandal prompted a wave of public anger against journalists, even though only a small number of national journalists were implicated.

Those journalists were dealt with in the criminal and civil courts. But now, riding that wave of public anger, the Government is trying to force all newspapers to join Impress, a press regulator of its choice – one which was dreamt up by politicians and is backed by a Royal Charter. It is mainly funded by one man, Max Moseley, through a family charitable trust.

The vast majority of newspapers – including the Telegraph & Argus – are already signed up to a new independent regulator: IPSO, the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The clue is in the name.

IPSO is funded by the press in the shape of almost every regional publisher, most national papers and many independents and magazines but the majority of both its board and the complaints committee have no connection with the newspaper or magazine industry.

Forcing newspapers to sign up to a regulator approved by politicians would fundamentally alter the balance of power between a free press and those the press exists to scrutinise. Most, including the Telegraph & Argus, refuse to do so, believing it would be a step towards state regulation and censorship.

But under Section 40, newspapers like the Telegraph & Argus which continued to refuse to sign up to the Government-approved regulator could then be forced to pay all the legal costs for both sides in any libel or privacy action, even when they won the court case.

This would have a chilling effect on newspapers’ ability to hold the powerful to account.

We wouldn’t dare to expose corruption or wrongdoing, even when we could prove them, for fear of massive legal bills. Whistleblowers would have nowhere to go. And the public would never know what was being done with their money.

Local MPs remain divided over whether Section 40 should be introduced.

Mr Davies, a Conservative MP, said: “If Section 40 comes into force, it will allow rich bullies to threaten newspapers into not printing stories about them – even though true and in the public interest – simply because the paper could not afford to take the financial risk.

“That would be devastating for ensuring people in positions of authority and responsibility are held to account and would make us all worse off.”

Conservative MP for Keighley, Kris Hopkins, urged T&A readers to have their say in a Government consultation.

He said: “Although Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act has been approved by Parliament, no date has been set for the provisions to become law.

“It is important that ministers are made aware of the public’s views before deciding on the way forward.”

But Labour MP for Bradford South, Judith Cummins, suggested the press had “nothing to fear” by signing up to regulation under Royal Charter.

She said: “It is very important that people remember why the Leveson recommendations came about, and the reprehensible way some national newspapers were behaving.

“I totally understand the concerns many good, professional and caring regional newspapers have. They are caught up in a situation not of their making but I think many of the reservations are unfounded.

“Newspapers such as the T&A are a part of the local community and much closer and well connected to their readers, whom they treat with far more respect.

“Regional newspapers have nothing to fear from independent, effective self-regulation, and indeed they stand to gain from much of what Leveson recommends.”

The Society of Editors, of which the Telegraph & Argus’ editor Perry Austin-Clarke is a member, has launched a campaign urging anyone who values freedom of information and freedom of expression to respond to the ongoing consultation on the Leveson Inquiry, making clear their opposition to the Government’s proposals.

“This really is a threat to one of the most fundamental principles of our British way of life – the freedom of newspapers like the Telegraph & Argus to question, to probe, to expose and to keep you informed,” said Mr Austin-Clarke.

“We need your support on this: it is your right to know that is under threat.”

Below are examples of stories we might never have been able to report had section 40 been in force – because of the risks of crippling legal costs.

We hope you’ll read them – and then add your support to our campaign.


Write to: Press Policy, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 4th floor, 100 Parliament St, London SW1A 2BQ

If you support the Society of Editors campaign, tick the boxes asking for repeal of section 40 and termination of the Leveson Inquiry.


Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

  • Fighting to report on fraud case

THE Telegraph & Argus has been fighting for your right to know about a £600,000 fraud case involving a local law firm.

The T&A first reported the story when the offices of Chambers Solicitors in Grattan Road were raided by police in 2014. 

We then exclusively reported that two solicitors and a further staff member had been charged in June 2015. In a series of telephone calls, the firm made clear its opposition to the T&A running the story.

When the trial began, this autumn, barristers acting for the defendants asked for the courts to impose a gagging order preventing the defendants or the firm from being named until the jury reached a verdict, arguing that it could damage the reputation of the firm. The T&A challenged this and the judge decided we should be able to report on the trial.

The defendants, Mohammed Riaz, Mohammed Ayub and Neil Frew, were found guilty of conspiracy to defraud and Chambers has since been shut down by regulators.

Read the full story here.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

  • Investors millions out of pocket 

THE collapse of the property firm Absolute Living Developments earlier this year left three flats projects in Bradford unfinished and international investors millions of pound out of pocket.

It sparked an international investigation by Hong Kong Police, with its Commercial Crime Bureau saying they were looking into “reports from 118 people who suspected that they were deceived while investing in properties involving about HK$74 million”.

This involved city-centre properties Olicana House, Alexander House and Summer Berry Residences, as well as other ALD properties in the UK.

The investigation remains ongoing but since then a further 44 people have made complaints, bringing the total number of alleged victims to 162.

If those behind the firm had suggested they would take legal action if the Telegraph & Argus reported the story, we may have had to weigh up the benefits of printing it against the potential risks of legal costs.

Read the full story here.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

  • Councillor quit over porn probe

DISGRACED Methodist minister and former Co-operative Bank chairman Paul Flowers had already been hitting the headlines in 2013 over allegations he had bought and used illegal drugs.

Then the T&A received a tip-off he had left his job as a senior councillor on Bradford Council after pornographic material was found on his work laptop in September 2011. At the time, his resignation had been attributed by the Labour group to time pressures, as he juggled his Council work with his role at the bank.

But when questioned, the Council confirmed he had resigned immediately on discovery of the adult material.

The T&A published this, but if any of those involved had threatened legal action beforehand, it might have been a different story.

The Labour group later published a full report into allegations of a cover-up, saying the decision had been made “on human grounds to spare the Rev Flowers any personal embarrassment”.

Read the full story here.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

  • Troubled nightclub hit the headlines

THE Telegraph & Argus first raised safety concerns about the nightspot Club C’s in March 2013.

The paper carried a story about a 21-year-old new mother who had allegedly had part of her lip bitten off while she was outside the club, in Sackville Street, Bradford.

Two months later, the T&A exclusively revealed police had got the club’s licence suspended in the light of five serious incidents since February. It got the licence reinstated that June. 

The T&A then reported a street brawl in which three people were stabbed outside the club in May 2014. Police later described the premises as the ‘nucleus’ of the feud and said they feared retaliation attacks, prompting another review of its licence. 

The business eventually closed voluntarily in June 2014, a day ahead of the review which would have decided its fate. But if the club had threatened legal action, the T&A may not have been able to publish these safety concerns as early as it did.

Read the full story here.

What do you think of the section 40 legislation? Leave your comments below.