Hold the front page – UK might get a press watchdog with teeth

Some people are pretty hacked off with the lack of press accountability in Britain. Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire

As criminal trials proceed against more journalists for alleged corrupt payments to public officials, and more evidence emerges about industrial-scale phone hacking at Mirror Group newspapers, The Sun appears to have ratcheted up its “save our press freedom” mantra with a systematic attack on the Crown Prosecution Service.

Meanwhile, powerful newspaper proprietors and editors continue to bully, intimidate and abuse ordinary people (as well as sometimes their own journalists) in their search for exclusives.

Casual readers could therefore be forgiven for assuming that the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry - given effect through a Royal Charter after cross-party agreement in Parliament - had been quietly shelved, while the newspapers’ own creation IPSO Independent Press Standards Organisation represented the only alternative for effective, independent press regulation.

In fact, as a series of hearings in front of the House of Lords select committee on Communications over the past few weeks has shown, exactly the opposite is true.

IPSO – a busted flush?

IPSO is frequently described by its apologist newspapers as “the toughest regulator in the western world” with the power to levy “million-pound fines”. These same newspapers trumpeted the appointment of the highly respected and charismatic retired appeal court judge Sir Alan Moses as IPSO’s first chairman. Here, surely, was undisputed proof of their new regulator’s independence from the industry.

Unfortunately, Moses is not master of his own house. IPSO’s paymaster is the Regulatory Funding Company (RFC) – which brings together the same large and powerful press groups that controlled the discredited Press Complaints Commission.

As the Media Standards vividly demonstrated in its 2013 report, the RFC controls virtually every aspect of IPSO’s operation and can intervene in investigations at almost every step of the process – particularly if IPSO attempts to impose sanctions. So a £1m fine is about as likely as a Daily Mail editorial welcoming Romanian immigrants.

Alan Moses wants to cut through red tape on press regulation. Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire

Since he started last September, Moses has committed himself to demanding changes from the RFC’s rulebook. He told the Lords select committee: “many of the rules – this awful collection of rules and regulations – are opaque, sometimes self-contradictory, difficult to understand and sometimes difficult to find”. The rules on investigations, he said, “require a large amount of red pencil”.

It is now clear, however, that Moses will be getting short shrift from the RFC. When its chairman Paul Vickers appeared in front of the committee a week later he was unequivocal, saying: “When Sir Alan says he’s going to put a red line through a whole load of things, he can’t.”

Royal Charter framework

Thankfully, the framework agreed by parliament is progressing and now offers a real chance of meaningful reform. Under the terms of the Royal Charter, a press recognition panel (PRP) was formally established in November last year. It is entirely independent of both politicians and the industry – and its job is to scrutinise any press self-regulator that puts itself forward for recognition and to ensure that it meets the Leveson criteria of independence and effectiveness enshrined in the Charter.

Its chairman, David Wolfe QC, told the Lords committee that this body is in the process of establishing detailed recognition criteria and would certainly be ready to process applications before its first anniversary – and earlier if a candidate self-regulator was ready to apply.

In fact, a Charter-compliant regulator is well on track to make such an application. The Independent Monitor for the Press (Impress), instigated by free speech campaigner Jonathan Heawood with support from writers and journalists, went through a wholly independent appointments process and now has a board and chairman designate, Walter Merricks.

Merricks told the Lords committee that they expect to have completed all necessary steps to be a Charter-compliant body within the next three months. And while no national publishers have yet been approached, there are several smaller online, regional and hyper-local publishers that have expressed a clear interest in accessing the kite-marking and protection benefits of being within a recognised self-regulator such as Impress.

Those benefits – for both journalists and members of the public – consist of new rules for legal costs contained within the Crime and Courts Act which are triggered as soon as a self-regulator is recognised by the PRP. Those who bring an arguable claim for privacy or defamation against a publisher which is not part of a recognised regulator will be protected from court costs even if they lose – on the perfectly rational basis that they have been denied the opportunity of low-cost resolution that a recognised regulator must provide.

Conversely, any wealthy or powerful individual or corporation who brings a similar claim against a publisher that is within a recognised regulator – if they insist on going to court rather than using arbitration – will have to pay their own costs, even if they win. Hence, publishers are protected from the chilling effects of a Robert Maxwell-type figure threatening to bankrupt them if they dare to publish unflattering information.

A separate provision – which provides immunity from exemplary damages in privacy and defamation cases for publishers inside a recognised regulator – comes into force automatically in November this year, the first anniversary of the PRP. It offers a further incentive for publishers to join a recognised self-regulator.

The future

At some point, the RFC will trumpet one or two minor concessions to IPSO as if Moses has forced it into wholesale submission. In fact, it will continue as an utterly compromised and toothless industry creature, just like its predecessors, wholly incapable of holding a powerful industry to account. The only protection – both for ordinary people whose lives are trashed to boost circulations, and for journalists who want to pursue hard-hitting, watchdog journalism – will come from the Leveson mechanisms rooted in the Royal Charter, which could well be up and running by the summer.

That, of course, assumes that a majority Conservative government does not reward its newspaper allies, renege on David Cameron’s personal pledge to victims, and sweep away the whole cross-party consensus.

Assuming common sense and the public interest prevail, we should at that point have a better idea of whether the new regime for press self-regulation is effective. If not, legislators will no doubt start contemplating Leveson’s backstop or “failsafe” option: a statutory regime, which obliges major publishers to join a regulator. No doubt at that point, press hysteria about North Korea and Zimbabwe will reach deafening proportions.

This is an edited version of an article that is published today on Democratic Audit: http://www.democraticaudit.com/