The proposal includes forcing publishers to pay all legal costs in any action relating to material they publish– for both themselves and the complainant – regardless of whether they win or lose the case.
The move would be made under Section 40 of the UK’s Crime and Courts Act.
Ian Beales, of the Commonwealth Press Union Media Trust, said it would have a chilling effect “that could put some UK papers out of business or deter them from vital investigative journalism”.
“There is an international ripple effect from the legal precedent set by this kind of two-tier, selective justice,” he said.
“Many Commonwealth countries share the UK legal heritage of a belief in equal justice for all and of a free press. Section 40 challenges both concepts.”
UK publishers would be protected from this provision if they were members of IMPRESS, a regulator backed by Royal Charter. However, it is yet to sign a major newspaper.A separate organisation, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), regulates 1,500 print and 1,100 online titles including Daily Mail, The Sun, Daily Mirror and The Daily Telegraph.
The Guardian and Financial Times join those papers listed above and many more in calling for Section 40 to be taken off the books before it is triggered.
The government is currently consulting on whether to bring Section 40 into force. It has been on the statute since 2013.
NewsMediaWorks contributed to a submission authored by the Commonwealth Press Union Media Trust, an organisation that promotes media freedom and rights around the Commonwealth.
NewsMediaWorks CEO, Mark Hollands, said placing the onus on publishers to pay all legal costs is “an invitation for malicious, unfounded claims and a genuine threat to press freedom, and freedom of expression”.
It was “censorship by another means”, he said.
The proposal would also “create needless and dangerous debate within Commonwealth countries, many of which look to the United Kingdom as a standard bearer for democracy, freedom of expression and for a press free of censorship”.
A spokesperson for Australia’s communications minister, Mitch Fifield, said the government had no plans to introduce new regulation for news media and supported the current system of self-regulation.
“The Government’s focus is on reforming media ownership laws and supporting the viability of our local organisations as they face increasing competition in a rapidly changing digital landscape,” the spokesperson said.
In Britain, IMPRESS was established off the back of recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry, which was launched in the wake of the News of the World phone hacking scandal.
Mr Beales said most UK publishers believe “any governmental or parliamentary involvement in newspaper regulation is inimical to the freedom of the press in Britain”.
“So, following the Leveson Inquiry, 95 per cent of UK national and regional press publishers rejected Parliament’s notion of a state-approved Royal Charter system of print media self-regulator, and launched instead a rigorous – but genuinely self-regulatory – IPSO, under a former Lord Justice of Appeal,” Mr Beales said.
“With powers to impose fines of up to £1 million for systemic breaches of the Code, this system is tough – but totally independent of government.”
Mr Beales is a founding member of the Editors’ Code Committee, which authors and administers the Editors’ Code of Practice that now binds IPSO members.
Some publishers are also concerned about IMPRESS’ funding links to former Formula 1 boss Max Mosley, the victim of a News of the World sex scandal sting.
Others like press accountability advocacy group Hacked Off are skeptical of IPSO, due to its publisher-based funding arrangement and likenesses to the now defunct Press Complaints Commission, which was accused of executing a lackluster investigation into the phone hacking scandal.
The phone hacking scandal prompted Australia to launch a media inquiry of its own.
The Finkelstein Inquiry, like the Leveson Inquiry, recommended establishing a new regulatory body, the News Media Council, to replace the publisher-funded Australian Press Council.
It attracted fierce opposition from newspapers including The Daily Telegraph which famously published a front page depicting then communications minister Stephen Conroy alongside Mao, Stalin, Castro and other “despot (that) believe in controlling the press”.
The idea was dropped.
Chairman of the Press Council, David Weisbrot, said the chance of Australia following the lead of the UK and introducing a Section 40-type provision was remote, but “there’s always a possibility”.
He expressed concern about Section 40, describing it as a “blunt instrument to force publishers “to move from one regulator to another”.
“I favour providing incentives for publishers to join a regulatory body … but I am concerned that Section 40 tips too far in the direction of threatening or punishing smaller publishers with potentially ruinous damages and cost orders in defamation.”
Unlike IPSO, the Australian Press Council cannot impose fines.
Lord Black, chairman of the Commonwealth Press Union Media Trust, welcomed the Australian government’s and Press Council’s moves to distance themselves from Section 40.
“Embarrassingly, they set an example which the UK – once a leader in press freedom – should follow. It is sad and humiliating,” he said.
“I hope the UK government listen to free speech campaigners, community groups, journalists and international organisations and drop Section 40 before our international reputation is damaged further.”
The UK government has received over 140,000 individual responses during its consultation on Section 40 and whether to commence part two of the Leveson Inquiry.
Actor Hugh Grant is a notable advocate of triggering Section 40.
In an opinion piece for The Guardian, he argued it would curb media abuses and that IMPRESS membership would provide the press with greater freedom to publish investigative journalism because of its cheap arbitration system.
For more news from NewsMediaWorks, click here.