Alan Hubbard

When Lord Sebastian Coe was in the throes of organising the 2012 Olympics in London, he observed that Britain had the most forensic media in the world.

He was not complaining, but simply pointing out that there was little chance of anything underhand in respect of the preparations and orchestration of the Games. Anything not fully transparent would surely be exposed.

And that, he said, was absolutely right. He has not wavered from that view about the necessity of a free press despite later himself becoming akin to a fox being chased by the newshounds over any alleged knowledge - or lack of it - about corruption within the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) he now leads.

Subsequently, it was said he took too long to sever his conflicting professional connections with Nike after assuming office; and that he knew nothing about the backhanders allegedly pocketed by his dodgy predecessor from the Senegalese judiciary,  Lamine Diack, despite being for several years his vice-president.

It was a situation which some of those close to him maintained was tantamount to a vendetta.

Coe rode out the storm, obviously piqued and uncomfortable but sticking by the Voltaire maxim: "I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it". 

Sebastian Coe described the UK media as the most forensic in the world ©Getty Images
Sebastian Coe described the UK media as the most forensic in the world ©Getty Images

He has always argued, and still does, that journalists should be free to write things those in authority might not like, not least in sport.

Alas, not everyone in high office shares that philosophy. Press freedom, as far as the UK media is concerned, is now under dire threat of being eroded, and this could severely affect highlighting sporting skulduggery if proposed legislation is passed in parliament.

Following the Leveson Report into conduct by the media under Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which is now under review by the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Karen Bradley, any newspaper that refuses to join a regulator approved under a Royal Charter and is sued for libel will be forced to pay the other side’s legal costs even if they win. 

This could bankrupt many publications - local and national - and force them out of business.

Moreover, the UK media would need to think twice about publishing things such as corruption within FIFA, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or the IAAF. Even the Russian drugs scandal.

As an example Sepp Blatter could take them to court, lose the case and it would still cost the newspapers millions.

Last weekend The Sunday Times warned that its historic exposure of drugs cheat cyclist Lance Armstrong would never have happened had Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act been enacted. 

Like other newspapers, it has published a form urging readers to respond to a Government consultation process by backing the scrapping of Section 40.

Section 40 was passed by Parliament in 2012 as a way of forcing publishers to sign up to a Leveson-compliant regulator but has never been enacted.

Armstrong sued The Sunday Times in 2004 after it linked him to the taking of banned drugs. It was forced to pay him £300,000 ($370,000/€353,000) in damages and more than £700,000 ($862,000/€823,000) in costs. In 2013 it recovered that money after Armstrong admitted taking performance-enhancing drugs.

The paper said "had Section 40 been in force at the time, the burden of paying Armstrong’s libel costs whether or not we won the case would have stopped us from publishing the story in the first place".

In addition, the paper noted that under Section 40, it could never have recovered the £850,000 ($1 million/€999,000) in costs it recovered from the "gangster" David Hunt who unsuccessfully sued the paper for libel in 2013.

The Sunday Times said it could not have tackled the Lance Armstrong story under the proposed new rules ©Getty Images
The Sunday Times said it could not have tackled the Lance Armstrong story under the proposed new rules ©Getty Images

The Government is considering whether to repeal Section 40, keep it under review, scrap it, or enforce it only partially - meaning the few publishers signed up to Royal Charter-backed regulator named Impress would be protected from paying both sides' costs in libel cases - even if they lost - but other publishers would not be punished.

Publishers are concerned that their voices on the consultation will be outweighed by the backers of a vigilante campaign group, Hacked Off, which has encouraged its own mass response to the consultation and provided supporters with a template letter.

If Section 40 is passed, most news publishers could be forced to either sign up to Impress or agree changes to the constitution of the main press regulator IPSO, to make it compliant with the Royal Charter on the regulation of press.

This would mean providing a libel and privacy arbitration scheme which is free for claimants, something which many publishers fear would increase the number of claims.

The spiky Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn declared: "It would be like putting the Kray Twins in charge of the Police Complaints Commission and forcing the victims of their crimes to pick up the bill".

Impress is mainly funded by multi-millionaire former Formula One chief Max Mosley, son of wartime Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, and who has been a vociferous supporter of shackles on the press after winning a privacy case against the News of the World. 

The former sports minister Kate Hooey has warned that if Section 40 is enacted "very quickly the choice every newspaper will face will be to submit to state regulation under Impress, drop any investigative activity at all, or shut down".

She added: "Shutting down will be the only honorable option. 

"The UK will lose not just a free press, but any print press at all."

Max Mosley has been a leading voice for press reforms ©Getty Images
Max Mosley has been a leading voice for press reforms ©Getty Images

The outcome is awaited with some trepidation as many members of parliament are still smarting from exposure of the crooked expenses claims and cannot wait to bring Fleet Street to heel by what could be interpreted as State regulation of the press, something of which quite a few IOC members will have knowledge.

Just like it was back in the USSR, eh?

As far as sport is concerned it could lead not only to the stifling of possible wrongdoing by governing bodies and individuals, but reasonable criticism say, of football referees, who could take newspapers to court knowing that they have nothing to lose, even if they lose.

Because either way the papers would pay.

And, for instance would the currently valid pursuit by the Daily Mail and others about the truth of what was in that mysterious jiffy bag delivered to Sir Bradley Wiggins back in 2011 ever have got off the ground?

And if Section 40 is enforced, will we ever know?