James Mitchinson: Freedom to seek out the truth in peril

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THE Yorkshire Post has a centuries-old track record of high quality investigative journalism, with successive editors pledging allegiance to the oath originally set down as the Post’s founding statement:

“[This newspaper] while supporting every practical improvement … will be at once conservative and progressive... but the firm friend of all constitutional reform.”

Investigations like Donnygate could now be compromised by proposed Government legislation.

Investigations like Donnygate could now be compromised by proposed Government legislation.

That journalistic vow represents this newspaper’s contract with the people of Yorkshire, to protect the interests of the county and to champion its assets while holding those in authority to account without fear or favour.

This year, 2017, marks the 20th anniversary of what is arguably The Yorkshire Post’s finest piece of investigative journalism: ‘Donnygate’.

Declared ‘historic stuff’ by judges at the Regional Press Awards, the multi-million-pound planning scandal revelations were the culmination of months of tenacious digging by the paper’s journalists, and courageous defiance of legal jeopardy by then editor Tony Watson.

Roll forward two decades and this newspaper remains one of the most revered quality broadsheets in the industry, only last year exposing the eye-watering arrogance of fire service chiefs who ran up bills into tens of thousands of pounds on corporate credit cards for luxury Kuwaiti hotel bills and fast food for staff.

As I returned from the Christmas break, I was greeted with fistfuls of correspondence in praise of our determination to shame Leeds City Council into revealing the names of four councillors who, following our exclusive investigation, we now know to have received summonses for non-payment of council tax.

The authority also set aside thousands of pounds of public money in an ongoing attempt to prevent you from knowing the truth, and to protect the quartet from public scrutiny, despite a rap to the contrary by the Information Commissioner. Council chief executive Tom Riordan has since apologised for the cover-up.

Such investigations are what makes The Yorkshire Post what it is, but above our raison d’être hangs Damoclean legislation which would effectively nullify our ability to publish such disclosure without the prospect of significant financial penalty.

The Crime and Courts Act of 2013 was introduced following the phone hacking scandal, even though the vast majority of newspapers like this one were entirely innocent of any wrongdoing. That Act now means not only are we liable to pay exemplary damages if we are found in court to have made a mistake, but a sleeping clause known as Section 40 could be awakened which would force us to pay both sides’ costs even if our journalism is entirely vindicated.

Put simply, any investigation in the public interest could be silenced by those with something to hide because they would know that, no matter how weak their case nor how robust our journalism, we would have to pay their ruinous costs if they tried to take us to court.

Imagine if The Yorkshire Post had in its possession damning irrefutable evidence pertaining to corruption that directly affected you, your family and your neighbourhood but was unable to publish it. Never mind that the story was in the public interest nor that every word of it was true, honest and utterly without bias, this change in the law would deprive you of such truths.

This spectre of state-sponsored free Press suppression is on the horizon because Parliament, its Ministers still nursing their wounds from having had their fingers caught in the public till as part of the Telegraph’s MPs’ expenses scandal, and under the cover of the Leveson Inquiry, hatched a plan without any industry consultation to force all newspapers, good or bad, to sign up to a new form of regulation under a Royal Charter.

Quite apart from the ​intended consequence that any decent news organisation that seeks to hold decision-makers to account should submit to a state-approved regulatory structure that future Governments could tighten and change, the Royal Charter also imposed ​potentially ​pernicious requirements around compensatory arbitration which many regional newspapers simply could not afford (even with a caveat that this might be subsequently reviewed in some cases if the damage was too great).

To ​force newspapers into signing up to the new system, these punitive clauses were inserted into the Crime and Courts Act, but my plea to you is that you see what anathema this is to what a free and fair Press should be, and act now before it is too late.

It isn’t as if the Press refused to adhere to robust regulation. The industry established its own new regulator, IPSO, which costs the taxpayer not a penny but is run entirely independently of us and holds us very effectively to account.

IPSO is tough, forensic and uncompromising with us, but we support it and the Editors’ Code of Practice which it enforces because we know that sometimes we make genuine mistakes and we must be held to account. This in essence is what we believe Lord Justice Leveson intended.

So I ask that you consider what The Yorkshire Post means to you, and if you value the work we do that you support us in our fight for fearless journalism conducted on your behalf. Yorkshire, your Post and its sister titles around the county need your help.

For the good of public scrutiny and accountability Section 40 must be repealed, and we need you to stand up for investigative journalism in a bid to preserve the future of press freedom and the future of this newspaper’s campaigning reporting

Your last chance to have your say on section 40 will be Tuesday, when the public consultation closes. You must act now to veto this inversion of justice.

You can help by completing an online survey. It doesn’t take long and will make all the difference. Go to www.research.net/r/9WH5LV3 to have your say, as well as writing to your own MP.

Without your support, Section 40 will be implemented, and the journalism you have come to expect from The Yorkshire Post will be changed forever. But if we can have your support as we enter the fray of this battle, it is yet another campaign that together we can win.

n James Mitchinson is editor 
of The Yorkshire Post.