SUSSEX'S longest-standing MP has backed local newspapers' "right to investigate" in the face of a proposed law change which could see the press hit with huge legal fees even if they win court challenges.

Worthing West MP Sir Peter Bottomley has said he stands by The Argus ahead of a crucial parliamentary vote which the industry is warning could have a hugely damaging "chilling effect" on investigative public interest reporting.

Hove MP Peter Kyle said local newspapers should not pay the price for the phone-hacking scandals of national tabloids.

Tomorrow, the House of Commons will vote on the revised House of Lords costs sanction amendments to the Investigatory Powers Bill, modelled on Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013.

The measures would require newspapers, not signed up to the Royal Charter and newly recognised regulator Impress, to pay both sides’ costs in court actions brought for alleged unlawful interception of communications or misuse of private information even if newspapers win the case.

News Media Association, UK journalism’s trade body, has warned the “chilling effect” on newspapers could not be “overstated” and could “cripple” local newspapers.

The amendment has been tacked on to the Investigatory Powers Bill even though last week the Government announced the launch of a ten-week consultation on whether Section 40 should be implemented.

Worthing West MP Sir Peter Bottomley said: “I am against forcing the press into a regulatory system that they don’t want, there is no sense in forcing them to sign up to Impress, who are very unimpressive.

“I will stand by The Argus and defend their right to investigate and report.

“They should not face a penalty when they are right and pay the costs of someone who is wrong.”

But Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas said by signing up to a recognised regulator, publishers will benefit from low-cost arbitration and protection for investigative journalism.

She said: “A free press is essential in a functioning democracy but it is also important that the public have confidence in the media.

"Though the vast majority of journalists act with integrity we have seen examples in recent years of damaging behaviour by some newspapers. "Whilst the proposed implementation is not perfect, it does introduce the key reforms proposed by Leveson.

"I do think that financial incentives can go some way to ensuring that publishers are ethical and comply with independent regulation.”

Hove MP Peter Kyle said: “Local papers, which themselves were not implicated in the scandals which led to the Leveson Inquiry, are a key part of our democracy and that must be taken into account when assessing this issue and proposed regulatory regimes and costs.”

Mike Gilson, editor of The Argus, said: “We have had 300 years of a free press and there is no way a newspaper like The Argus will sign up for statutory regulation under a medieval Royal Charter which whatever critics say is under the control of politicians.

"It amazes me that some MPs even here in Sussex who purport to be liberal on many matters seem happy that Section 40 would land us with punitive costs in court even if we successfully defended a privacy or defamation action simply because we will not sign this charter.

"It will simply have a chilling effect on our reporting meaning we will not tackle important issues because of the threat of having to pay court costs to defend our entirely justified actions.

"It is unfair and undemocratic."


JOURNALISM has always been one of the least trusted and least popular of all professions.

The shameful behaviour of a very small number of journalists in phone-hacking and other malpractices, which sparked the Leveson inquiry, only took that distrust to new levels.

So protests from our industry over proposed changes to press regulation are unlikely to gain sympathy.

Proposals to be voted on tomorrow in the House of Commons could see newspapers which don’t sign up to the Royal Charter and the newly state-sanctioned regulator Impress being forced to pay their own costs and their claimant’s costs at any libel or privacy trial – even if we win the case.

This won’t just hurt newspapers, it will hurt any victims of injustice, unfairness or cruelty.

Would the Sunday Times have pursued its Thalidomide exposé and would deceitful MPs such as Jonathan Aitken or Neil Hamilton remain in public office if editors making the call knew the financial risks were so great.

As a newspaper with a small budget, The Argus is extremely wary of the threat of being taken to court.

Raising those costs will prove even greater disincentive to the kind of investigative, public interest reporting this newspaper has always aspired to carry out.

For The Argus, one huge legal bill could be curtains.

Newspapers will simply be scared off from tackling any stories which shine a light on unscrupulous behaviour by anyone with deep pockets. The libel laws are already well established to protect those mistreated by the press.

Toughening up cost rulings seems almost as if it is designed to protect rich clients with something to hide.

Many reading this will probably say why not just sign up to Impress.

The truth is that no respectable newspaper is ever going to sign up to a Royal Charter. It is written into our psyche that we will never submit to statutory regulation.

Leveson recommended a regulator free from any industry influence but it also recommended one free from Government.

The industry has already made strides to clean up its act since the dark days of phone hacking.

Such action is indefensible but was already covered as a breach of the law and the industry code of conduct.

The scandal toppled the News of the World while some pretty high-profile figures went to jail.

The previous industry watchdog, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), was not without its faults and many of them have been addressed in the far more rigorous Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso).

Ipso has an exhaustive and comprehensive investigation forcing newspapers to file detailed evidence to even the most trivial of complaints which can take many hours to complete.

The regulator has thousands of publications signed up including the majority of national newspapers. In contrast Impress has just 23, the vast majority of whom are hyper-local regional news websites.

With the greatest respect in the world these are hardly likely to uncover the next great scandal of our times.

Those advocating the Royal Charter are wrong to think it will be the panacea to everything they don’t like about Ipso.

It is a system that was drawn up in the wee small hours without any input from the industry itself and yet could change the face of our proud industry for the worse at a stroke.

Opponents of the current system claim that the media can no longer be trusted to regulate itself.

But the alternative being offered by Impress is handing over that control to those with an axe to grind against newspapers.

Max Mosley is bankrolling the new press regulator while its biggest cheerleader, protest group Hacked Off, is backed by celebrity supporters Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and John Cleese, who have all been subject to unfavourable newspaper coverage.

The fact that the issue is being debated at all on Tuesday is because the House of Lords shoehorned in Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act to the unrelated Investigatory Powers Bill which is far more concerned with the powers of the security services to track terrorists than it is with newspapers.

Many lords voting in support of incorporating section 40 are no stranger to the newspapers themselves having been caught out by exposés and investigations down the years.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn, who was suspended after an undercover sting found him willing to change laws in exchange for cash. Lady Uddin, exposed as an expenses cheat in 2009, and Lord Rennard, who was accused in several newspapers of sexual harassment. All voted in support.

Will MPs, many still bristling after the expenses scandal and wary they may be the latest in a long line of MPs caught out by newspaper scandal, also relish the opportunity to tie up and muzzle the snapping dog of the media?


What is Ipso?

THE Independent Press Standards Organisation has been the independent regulator for the vast majority of the newspaper and magazine industry in the UK since 2014, led by an independent judge with a majority of non journalists making decisions.

More than 2,600 publications are held to account by the Independent Press Standards Organisation which has the powers to fine publishers up to £1 million.

What is Impress?

Impress would be the first state-appointed press regulator in the history of the UK.

Impress is funded entirely from the Independent Press Regulation Trust which in turn is funded by the Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust which was set up by Max Mosley.

Just 23 publications are currently regulated by the fledgling regulator including Your Thurrock, Brixton Bugle, Gedling Eye, On The Wight and Positive News.

Why is the majority of the newspaper industry opposed to signing up to Impress?

Because the newspaper industry in this country has never been under state control before.

Freedom of the press, removed from state regulation, is the foundation stone of the industry.

Going down the road of state intrusion is a slippery slope which could see curbs on press freedoms. The danger here is the chilling effect on holding people to account and exposing the wrongdoings of people and organisations.

What is happening tomorrow?

The ping pong debate of the Investigatory Powers Bill returns to the House of Commons after the latest amendments in the House of Lords where it could return this week for a final vote.

The bill is primarily about the interception of communications, equipment interference and the acquisition and retention of communications data.

But as part of the latest amendment to the bill, an amendment based on a key Leveson inquiry recommendation known as Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 could be added.

The measures would require newspapers not signed up to the Royal Charter and Impress to pay both sides’ costs in court actions brought against them for unlawful interception of communications or misuse of private information even if newspapers win the case.