4 January 2017

The British press could soon be at the mercy of its enemies


Imagine for a moment that members of the board of Ofcom publicly declared that they “hate” ITV and that Channel 4 are “scum”. Or if the executives at the British Board of Film Classification expressed a desire to ban movies made by 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. Or if a spokesman for Ofgem, the energy regulator, said that the “Big Six” were a bunch of Nazis.

It may seem fanciful – but the equivalent is happening today with the British newspaper industry.

In October, “Impress” gained recognition as an official state-backed press regulator, after a body called the Press Recognition Panel agreed that it met the requirements set out in the Royal Charter that resulted from the Leveson Inquiry.

There are two farcical elements to this. The first is that none of the 23 criteria by which potential press regulators are judged includes the requirement to actually have any members. Impress claims to regulate 31 publications – a tally achieved only by double-counting print and digital editions. And with all due apologies to the Caerphilly Observer and Waltham Forest Echo, none of them is a household name.

More alarming, however, is the fact that several of Impress’s senior board and committee members are on the record confessing their hatred of some of the newspapers they want to regulate.

Paul Wragg, a member of Impress’ Code Committee, has said he “couldn’t agree more” with people who “hate the Daily Mail”.

Board member Máire Messenger Davies has endorsed social media posts calling the Mail “scum” and its editor Paul Dacre “evil”.

Another Code Committee member, Gavin Phillipson, has written that it is “such a shame we can’t just ban the Daily Mail – probably the worst aspect of contemporary British culture”.

This isn’t a case of a few extreme voices. The vitriol flows right from the top of the organisation. Impress’s CEO, Jonathan Heawood, has shared multiple social media posts calling the Mail “fascists” as well as a claim that the paper is “increasingly adopting fascist style politics”.

Another post shared by Heawood compares the Mail to a newspaper from Nazi Germany. Three board members have endorsed a campaign seeking to divest advertising revenues from the Sun, Daily Mail and Express.

On top of which, there is the matter of Impress’s funding. Impress’s website says it has been given £3.8 million over four years by the Independent Press Regulation Trust (IPRT), “a registered charity, which exists to promote high standards of journalism”. It adds that “at this point, the IPRT’s funding has been guaranteed by the Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust”.

What Impress is too genteel to explain is that this money actually comes from Max Mosley, who has led a bitter campaign against the press since the News of the World published details of his sex life (he won the ensuing court case against the paper for breach of privacy).

This is obviously hugely problematic. How can a press regulator whose senior members detest some of the biggest titles on Fleet Street possibly regulate it fairly? Why did the Government grant state recognition to a group of people who seem to have such a pathological loathing of much of the press?

If board members at Ofcom or Ofgem came out with such bile against the industries they regulate, they would have to resign. Downing Street would not stand for it. Yet, so far, Theresa May and Culture Secretary Karen Bradley have expressed no concerns about the regulator’s fitness for purpose.

All this would be essentially a sideshow – though a very expensive one for the public purse, given the millions spent on the Press Recognition Panel – were it not for Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act.

This measure will never be debated down the Dog and Duck, or be the issue that swings an election. But it is in the interests of the whole country that as many people as possible understand and make a fuss about the next few sentences.

Section 40 – the brainchild of Lord Leveson – means that when an individual makes a legal complaint about a story in a newspaper which has not signed up to a state-approved regulator, that newspaper will have to pay the claimant’s costs even if the paper wins.

Say a newspaper has a story about an MP fiddling his expenses. It has incontrovertible evidence the story is true. Yet because the newspaper had refused to sign up to Impress, the MP knows he can sue them and the newspaper will have to pay his costs, whatever the result of the court case.

The same applies to a tax-dodging millionaire, a corrupt multinational, or an Islamist extremist. Even when a story is true, if a complaint is made, the newspaper will have to pay the costs of both sides.

Under Section 40, newspapers will no longer be subject to the same laws as everyone else. It would render the press unequal before the law, liable for huge costs even when it publishes true and accurate information. Even when it has done nothing wrong.

Section 40 comes into effect – at the Government’s discretion – once an officially recognised regulator has been established. So the decision to recognise Impress leaves editors and publishers with an awful choice.

Given the outrageous public statements made by senior figures at Impress, and its dependence on Max Mosley’s money, it is impossible to see how any self-respecting newspaper would agree to be regulated by it.

So do they pay huge and potentially bankrupting sums of money in legal costs for publishing the truth, or pull their punches and let the bad guys get away with it?

This is, in other words, a charter for the rich and powerful to get away with their misdeeds. The Sunday Times has said it would never have been able to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat had Section 40 been in existence at the time. Local papers without the funds to pay costs would be especially affected – which is why the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg says Section 40 would “destroy the free press and bankrupt local papers in favour of libidinous luminaries”.

The well-funded lobby of pro-Impress celebrities and campaigners will tell you that the media is not facing any threat to its ability to report the truth, that this is all a Murdoch/Rothermere/Barclays conspiracy to swerve accountability.

But listen to Roy Greenslade of the Guardian, who in recent years has been one of the strongest critics of the popular press. He says of Section 40: “It surely does threaten the freedom of the press. However much one sympathises with people who have suffered at the hands of the press, and however much I lack sympathy for newspapers guilty of all manner of bad behaviour, I cannot but see Section 40 as a retrograde step.”

There is still time for Section 40’s opponents to be heard; the Government‘s consultation on whether to implement it is open until January 10 (the best way to take part is to email [email protected] politely explaining your position). And a new YouGov poll out this morning shows that just 4 per cent of the public support the Impress model in which press regulation is funded by wealthy individuals and trusts, many of whom have an obvious axe to grind.

But if newspapers are to continue to hold the corrupt to account, then as many people as possible need to get angry about this issue in the next six days. Otherwise don’t expect to read about the next expenses scandal in the newly muzzled British press.

Alex Wickham is news editor of the Guido Fawkes website