‘Ben Staff case shows why our press must be free to investigate’

Ben Staff leaving Norwich magistrates court in 2008. Photo: Archant.

Ben Staff leaving Norwich magistrates court in 2008. Photo: Archant. - Credit: Archant � 2008

At a time when the freedom of the press in this country is threatened by the spectre of state regulation, the case of Ben Staff is a timely reminder of why newspapers must be able to publish fair and accurate stories without fear.

Our ability to do this is being challenged by Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act which the government is currently consulting on.

If implemented, newspapers will have to pay the legal costs of opponents in libel cases – even if the newspaper wins the case. It would mean that someone we accurately expose for wrongdoing could sue us and have nothing to lose.

They could take a publisher to court, be defeated, but still have that newspaper pay their hefty legal bill.

It would stop us publishing investigations such as those about Ben Staff which led to the former policeman being jailed for four-and-a-half years for fraud-related offences on Tuesday.

The only way to avoid this stinging legal bill would be for publishers to sign up to a state regulator of the press.

Other countries with state regulation of the press include Bahrain, China, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe.

This is not a list the UK should be seeking to join.

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Like most other industries, newspapers have their own industry regulator which was rightly strengthened following the Leveson inquiry and phone-hacking scandal.

Should Section 40 be implemented, newspapers would have to make a choice between no longer publishing investigative journalism – and therefore failing in their role to hold power to account – or sign up to a state regulator.

•To take part in the consultation about Section 40 email presspolicy@culture.gov.uk or follow this link.