Tory plans to repeal Section 40 and scrap Leveson part two have been welcomed by press freedom campaigners but condemned as a “betrayal” by campaign group Hacked Off.
The Conservative general election manifesto said that inquiry into phone-hacking was not necessary because there had already been lengthy police investigations.
And it said Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 should be repealed because “it would force media organisations to become members of a flawed regulatory system or risk having to pay the legal costs of both sides in libel and privacy cases, even if they win”.
The Society of Editors said: “There has been an arduous 300-year battle to achieve press freedom and freedom of expression in the UK and we welcome the Conservative party’s recognition that Section 40 would be a giant step backwards.
“In a year in which the threat of such illogical legislation has seen the UK fall once again in the World Press Freedom Index, the repeal of Section 40 would ensure that other countries continue to look to the UK as a nation that upholds and protects the values it seeks to promote abroad.”
Director of English PEN Jo Glanville said: “We are delighted that the government has listened to our concerns and dropped this coercive legislation. The lack of clarity regarding the definition of publisher in the Crime and Courts Act would have exposed not only the media but civil society as a whole to vexatious claims, undermining freedom of expression across the UK.”
And Rebecca Vincent, UK Bureau Director for Reporters Without Borders, said: “We welcome the Conservative Party’s commitment not to proceed with the second stage of the Leveson Inquiry, and to repeal Section 40 – measures that we campaigned for.
“However, a number of other threats to press freedom remain, such as the Law Commission’s proposal for an alarming new Espionage Act, which should also be scrapped. We urge all UK political parties to ensure their policies respect and protect press freedom, as it is too often trampled in the name of security.”
But campaign group Hacked Off condemned what it described as a “wholesale betrayal” of the victims of press wrongdoing.
The enactment of section 40 would have forced publishers to sign up to a press regulator which had official recognition under the Parliament-backed Royal Charter. By describing this as a “flawed” system, the Tories now appear to be rejecting the entire post-Leveson settlement on press regulation which was secured partly as a result of the Hacked Off campaign.
A spokesperson for the group said: “The Conservative manifesto pledge to abandon part two of the Leveson Inquiry and repeal section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act is a wholesale betrayal both of victims of press abuse and ordinary members of the public whom the Prime Minister claims to represent.”
“It will undo years of cross-party co-operation in constructing a genuinely independent and effective system of press self-regulation, which has the overwhelming support of Parliament, the public, and working journalists. It will leave ordinary people defenceless against the power of unaccountable press barons. And it will damage genuine public interest journalism.
“Moreover, by abandoning Leveson part two, Mrs May appears willing to see evidence of police corruption, of newspapers’ cover-up of widespread illegality, and of collusion between police and press swept under the carpet.
“We know that, since the 2015 general election, senior members of the Conservative government have met newspaper editors and executives with increasing frequency. We know that Theresa May, in a 36 hour visit to New York last September, found time to visit Rupert Murdoch. We know that Mrs May has had private dinners with Paul Dacre. It appears that the Prime Minister has stitched up a calculated deal to trade the interests of the public for favourable election coverage in powerful newspapers.
“If this pledge is carried through, there will be no effective, independent regulation of the press in this country and no access to affordable justice for victims of press abuse. We wish to make it clear that those who have suffered at the hands of powerful and unaccountable newspapers will not tolerate this betrayal.
“We will fight throughout the next Parliament to ensure that the voices of ordinary people are heard above the megaphones of self-interested newspaper editors and proprietors. We will fight to ensure that the careful regulatory framework proposed by Leveson and agreed by Parliament is not systematically dismantled by a government subservient to newspaper editors. And we will fight to ensure that any inconvenient truths about cover-ups and about collusion between police, press and politicians in the past are exposed to proper scrutiny.”