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A new charity has been launched to offer advice to members of the public affected by “unethical behaviour” in the press, and to push for higher standards in the media.
The Press Justice Project launched at an event inside Parliament on Tuesday 28 November, with a pledge to join up with advocacy groups working on climate change, violence against women, the rights of migrants, racism, sexuality-based discrimination and press intrusion. The group hopes to raise awareness of the impacts of unethical press reporting “right across society.”
The PJP says it will complement the work of campaign group Hacked Off, which is backing the project. PJP will offer advisory and educational services directly to the public on how to tackle wrongdoing by newspapers, while Hacked Off continues to focus on the legal reforms it says are needed to “address low standards in the press”.
The event was hosted by Lord Lipsey, a Labour peer and former journalist who was outspoken during the Leveson inquiry into phone hacking.
Lord Lispey told the event the Government tried to “buy” the support of the press in 2019 by pledging to repeal Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which was passed after the Leveson inquiry following the phone-hacking scandal.
Section 40, if enacted, would mean publishers would be required to sign up to an independent press regulator to handle complaints, in a similar way to how broadcasters are regulated by Ofcom. Ministers are currently trying to scrap the law in its current Media Bill, which is soon to be scrutinised in the Commons.
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Section 40 is strongly opposed by newspapers, who back “self-regulation”. If the post-Leveson inquiry law came into force, any news organisation that has not signed up to the official regulator would have to pay both sides’ legal costs of libel trials – unless a judge rules otherwise – even if they win. Newspapers said it would have a “chilling effect” on investigative journalism.
But publishers signed up to official regulator, Impress, would see their costs limited in libel cases. Hacked Off says it would also tackle controversial Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), a form of “lawfare” used by wealthy individuals and firms that can currently see news organisations face crippling costs even if they have a strong defence.
Lord Lipsey added: “Just before the  general election, [the Conservatives[ promised in their manifesto to repeal the legislation. Do you think that was because they thought it was a bad piece of legislation? No, they had all signed up to it. It was a crude attempt to buy the support of the press, and it worked…Now they are trying to fulfil that pledge in the current Media Bill.”
But he added that the Lords “are not just going to let this go through” and opposition parties are likely to heavily scrutinise the repeal.
Labour has said it will oppose repeal of Section 40, with a spokesperson telling the Guardian in July: “The government is wrong to muddy the waters with a debate about repealing section 40, which is unnecessary as it has never been enacted and so repeal will not make any substantive difference.”
Among the speakers at the launch was Danielle Bennett, a beautician who said her business was “destroyed” by untrue allegations in an article in the Mail on Sunday in December 2017. She attempted suicide after an undercover reporter went into her home following a complaint of poor service – despite Trading Standards having found in her favour. Bennett brought a libel action against the Mail’s publishers, which was eventually settled with a payout and apology.
Bennett said: “Soon after the article came out, I really lost myself. I stopped working, lived on cups of tea, stayed in bed all day every day and I couldn’t concentrate on anything…I lost so much weight. I became obsessed with needing to move house because neither of us felt safe in our home.
“Even my son was affected – his behaviour changed. I didn’t notice because I was feeling lost…but his school noticed. My son was bullied at school and people in our village would make comments about the article to us. I felt like we were the disgrace of our village.”
IPSO eventually ordered a correction on page two of the newspaper – albeit much smaller than the article attacking her. However, the Mail on Sunday “refused and insisted on publishing it on page eight – [and] IPSO let them,” Bennett told campaign group Hacked Off previously. Bennett now campaigns for higher standards in the press and sits on the trustee board of the Press Justice Project.
A spokesperson for the Press Justice Project said: “Everyday, people are affected by lies, intrusion or other forms of wrongdoing in the press…The PJP [will] work directly with the public, to help ordinary people affected by press wrongdoing to navigate IPSO and other complaints-handlers to get redress.” However, the group notes that IPSO upholds fewer than 1% of the complaints it receives.
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