The Conservatives have vowed to repeal a controversial law that would force publishers to bear the brunt of legal costs when sued even if they won the case, while also planning to scrap a second public enquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press.
The promises outlined in the Conservative manifesto will be welcomed by newspapers who have rallied against Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, a law that was drawn up following the Leveson inquiry.
The law would force newspapers to pay their opponents’ costs in libel and privacy cases, regardless of whether the case is won, unless they sign up to state-approved regulator Impress.
Newspapers have argued that the new law would open the door for anyone to mount a defamation case, whether justified or not, safe in the knowledge their legal fees will be subsidised.
Such measures could force smaller publishers out of business and incur excessive costs for others to bear. This in turn risks harming the sort of investigative journalism which uncovered phone hacking in the first place, the Guardian has argued.
Meanwhile the second part of the Leveson inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press will be ditched by a Conservative government, the party pledged.
Leveson 'Part Two' was intended to investigate law-breaking and improper conduct within media organisations, looking at specific claims about phone-hacking at the News of the World and what went wrong with the original police investigation.
But in 2015 The Times reported that "the government had no appetite to launch formally the second part, given the costs involved, and a consensus that this ground had been covered during the criminal trials".
Section 40 has been supported by Hacked Off, a campaign group for press reform backed by press abuse victims and celebrities including Gary Lineker, Hugh Grant and JK Rowling. A spokesperson for Hacked Off called the Conservatives’ plans to scrap Leveson 'Part Two' and Section 40 a “wholesale betrayal”, both of victims of press abuse and ordinary members of the public.
“It will undo years of cross-party co-operation in constructing a genuinely independent and effective system of press self-regulation, which has the overwhelming support of Parliament, the public, and working journalists. It will leave ordinary people defenceless against the power of unaccountable press barons. And it will damage genuine public interest journalism.”
“Moreover, by abandoning Leveson Part 2, Mrs May appears willing to see evidence of police corruption, of newspapers’ cover-up of widespread illegality, and of collusion between police and press swept under the carpet.”
“It appears that the Prime Minister has stitched up a calculated deal to trade the interests of the public for favourable election coverage in powerful newspapers.”
Elsewhere in the manifesto, the Conservatives have promised to keep Channel 4 as a public broadcaster but have backed plans to relocate the broadcaster outside London.
Channel 4 is opposed to the relocation, arguing it would be costly and counterproductive to better serving UK regions.