John Whittingdale, secretary of state for culture, media and sport © Getty Images
During the recent controversy about John Whittingdale, his private life and his relationship with the press, one statutory provision was often mentioned.
This is “section 40″ and the contention was that the secretary of state for culture, media and sport was acting wrongly in not bringing it into force.
It was further argued that the reason for this failure could be attributed to the hold that the tabloid media had over him. Section 40 of the Courts and Crime Act 2013 is, it would appear, to be of fundamental importance in the debate about press regulation.
Some assert that it would be lethal to press freedom in general and to investigative journalism in particular. Others say it would be a valuable cornerstone in a regulatory system for a free and vibrant but accountable press.
Never has a statutory provision, which is yet to be implemented, had so much riding on it.
On the narrow issue of this provision, as on the wider one of press regulation, good and experienced people — who worked alongside each other on libel reform, for example — disagree starkly. There is anger and derision in their debates on social media. One gets the sense that wise individuals should never discuss the regulation of the press, and that they should talk of less controversial topics such as religion or politics instead.
So what exactly is this section 40 about? Why does it matter to so many people who are concerned with press freedom and media standards? And what would it mean in practice, if and when it is finally put into effect?