As regular spiked readers will know, the UK government is holding a consultation on whether to proceed with the second part of the Leveson Inquiry, this time into the media’s relationship with the police and other public officials, and, perhaps most worryingly for anyone who cares about press freedom, on whether to implement Section 40 of the 2013 Crime and Courts Act.
Section 40 is a seriously chilling piece of legislation. Currently the presumption in civil cases is that whoever loses pays the legal fees. So if a newspaper is sued for libel, and wins, the complainant will have to pay both sides’ court costs. Section 40, in an attempt to force the press to submit to the new post-Leveson regulatory regime, promises to reverse that longstanding presumption. It states that any media outlet that is not a paid-up member of a state-approved-and-licensed ‘self-regulatory’ body will be liable for all legal costs even if they win a civil case. Section 40 is effectively a boot stamping on the face of the free press until it submits to regulation.
It’s certainly not difficult to see how Section 40 would inhibit the press. Take the Telegraph’s MPs’ expenses exposé in 2009. If that investigation were undertaken today, every one of the hundreds of MPs implicated could have sued the Telegraph in the knowledge that it would therefore have to foot the bill for hundreds of legal cases, regardless of their validity. Indeed, claimants would have nothing to lose in taking legal action – Section 40 positively encourages it. With such a financially damaging prospect in mind, do you think the Telegraph would still have sanctioned the story? As for smaller outlets, especially local papers, the cost of a single legal action under Section 40 could be enough to drive them out of business. No story, no revelation, no risky investigation would be worth the cost of financial extinction.
For the great investigative reporters of the past, Section 40 and Leveson Part 2 would have made their work even more difficult. Think, for example, of one of the most successful modern purveyors of popular investigative journalism: Laurie Manifold.
When Manifold, born in 1928, was making his way as a journalist during the 1950s, the People’s Duncan Webb, a man dubbed ‘the greatest crime reporter of our time’, was setting the standard for daring, down and dirty investigative journalism. Most famously, in 1950, he had exposed the Maltese Messina brothers as the people behind prostitution rackets in Soho – or as his exposé put it, ‘four debased men with an empire of vice which is a disgrace to London’.
Given Webb’s Fleet Street reputation for doing anything to get the big scoop, not to mention the reputation of the People for sometimes sensationalist investigations, it was little surprise that Manifold, a man with a keen eye for a story and more importantly a willingness to pursue it, got himself a job there in the mid-1950s. It was at the People, during the 1960s and 1970s, that Manifold, through his determined, organised and sometimes law-breaking brand of journalism, made his mark. Indeed, ex-Sun editor and current Guardian columnist, Roy Greenslade, called Manifold ‘the father of modern popular paper investigative journalism’. Whether through phone tapping, mail intervention, wiring up for interviews or setting up hidden tape recorders, Manifold schooled many of the investigative journalists who were to go on to make an impact at other newspapers, from Trevor Kempson and Mike Gabber to, most infamously, Mazher Mahmood, better known as the now jailed ‘fake sheikh’.
There was a reason for all the quasi-espionage tactics: Manifold’s absolute commitment to finding evidence to back up a story that powerful others did not want to be told. Another of Manifold’s one-time reporters recalls that commitment: ‘[As] a reporter on the Sunday People, I spent weeks trying to stand up a tip that a children’s charity official was a paedophile. The allegation came from a concerned colleague who pointed me to others who helped to build a very worrying picture. Eventually I had enough to put forward a memo to the investigations editor, Laurie Manifold. “It’s 80 per cent there”, he said. “Trouble is, the missing 20 per cent is the evidence. Drop it.”’ That chastened reporter was a certain Alastair Campbell, who, thanks to his role as ex-prime minister Tony Blair’s master of spin, supports the post-Leveson attempt to stop the press from speaking truth to power, dodgy dossiers and all.