14 Dec

A new Puritan Commonwealth?

We have complete freedom of speech in this country. It’s just that we’re not allowed to say anything. Our politicians are forever boasting of our freedoms and telling us what a wonderful country we are privileged to live in – unlike Johnny Foreigner in any number of dictatorial regimes abroad.

But this week the government has threatened – not for the first time – to invoke Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013.

What’s that when it’s out?

Just about the most unjust and iniquitous piece of legislation you could imagine in the worst of your Orwellian nightmares. Section 40 will force newspapers to pay the legal costs of those who sue them – even when a newspaper wins the court case against its accuser.

This is beyond outrageous.

Consider this comparison: my neighbour is building a low wall between our properties and I don’t like it. He assures me that the wall will do nothing to obscure my view or reduce the amount of sunshine I enjoy in my garden. His proposed wall, he says, is less than a foot tall and merely ornamental. But I am renowned for being obstreperous and uncooperative and I tell my neighbour I still don’t like his wall and I’m going to sue him.

The case comes before the court which rules that there is nothing offensive or intrusive about my neighbour’s wall and that I am just being unreasonable. My action is thrown out.

If Section 40 were to be applied in this case, my neighbour – who has been adjudged to be in the right – could be forced to pay my legal costs.

In other words, Section 40 is a charter for mischievous litigants. It will permit any crank out to make a fast buck to sue any newspaper about anything, secure in the knowledge that, win or lose, his costs will be paid by the paper.

It’s easy to see where this will lead in pretty quick time: newspapers will be bankrupted and titles will close down.

Who could possibly have dreamed up a process so manifestly unethical? Answer: the commissars in Lord Leveson’s Press Recognition Panel.

The government – any government – will rejoice to see newspapers shut down – because it will mean they are no longer held to account. If Leveson’s recommendations had been in operation at the time of the MPs’ expenses scandal, there would have been no expenses scandal because there would have been no free press to investigate and report it.

A free press is the first requirement of a free society and every totalitarian dictatorship from Maduro’s Venezuela to Putin’s klepto-fascist regime in Russia seeks to curtail and even abolish press freedom.

Even the Puritan John Milton, who was employed by Oliver Cromwell as his censor, fervently defended press freedom in his Areopagitica  saying: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

Section 40 would impose upon us a restrictiveness and repression worse than that of the Puritan Commonwealth of 1649-1660