The British press has suffered from some bad PR in recent years. It has been dragged through the Leveson Inquiry, investigated at length by the police, abandoned by large numbers of readers, and its future has been debated in parliament.
Throughout all of this, the question of how to regulate a free press continues. The Press Complaints Commission is no more, IPSO (the industry’s own body) is ignored by several major publications, and now we have IMPRESS, the latest organisation to offer to take on the job.
IMPRESS says it is “the first truly independent press regulator in the UK” and, despite having no national newspapers as members, claims to be legitimised by official recognition from the Press Recognition Panel (PRP).
A government funded quango created by the Royal Charter on the Press, the PRP operates with the guarantee of £3m of taxpayer’s funding. But never has so much public money been channelled into a public body that has so little to do and is so unpopular with the industry it has been set up to serve.
This is because its operating Royal Charter has nothing to do with agreement or negotiation. It is a medieval constitutional instrument of executive power imposed by politicians upon the press industry without consent.
Meanwhile, the industry itself has spent millions of pounds on its own self-regulator, IPSO, which it argues is just as “Leveson compliant”.
Among the blunt weapons possessed by IMPRESS with which it can batter publishers of news, is the threat of “exemplary” or punitive damages in media law litigation and the burden of paying both sides’ legal costs whatever the outcome of the proceedings.
The risk of exemplary damages went live from November 2015 and has been described by freedom of expression bodies as a menacing threat which will make the media wary of upsetting government and parliamentarians.
There is a strong argument that multiple human rights violations will result, including a lack of freedom of expression and right to fair trial. This is not democracy – particularly when these measures apply to any publisher that objects to its content being effectively licensed by a government body.
It is argued that forcing news publishers to comply with IMPRESS regulation is balanced by the alternative of low-cost arbitration. But the IMPRESS regime can still leave the publisher picking up the claimant’s costs of up to £3,000. When this is combined with its own arbitration fee of up to £3,500, plus its own legal costs, one IMPRESS arbitration could easily mount up to £10,000 – before damages. The arbitrator’s decision is final – and the process takes place in secret.
Is this is a satisfactory method of resolving freedom of expression disputes?
IMPRESS is essentially the manifestation of a political movement determined to control mainstream media publishers that are largely condemned for being dominated by a right-wing capitalist agenda and dismissive of the rights of “media victims”.
They are also criticised for advancing a prurient culture dominated by what titillates the public in terms of prejudice, scandalous gossip, and tabloid “ruining of people’s lives”.
This is the doctrine that motivated and dominated Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry. It is the raison d'être of orgnisations such as Hacked Off, the Media Standards Trust, the Media Reform Coalition and their cadre of cheer-leading politicians, lawyers, academics and celebrities bruised by popular media intrusion.
IMPRESS does not regulate any significant proportion of the press or its associated online websites. Those it does regulate include an eccentric mishmash of independent online websites, all of which appear to be unlikely to turn over £2m a year or have more than ten employees. Under the Crime and Courts Act 2013 this makes them exempt from regulation anyway and unlikely to be able to subsidise IMPRESS in the future.
Currently IMPRESS exists thanks largely to a series of donations, including from – among others – former F1 tycoon Max Mosley, via a family trust which has guaranteed it £3.8m over four years.
Mr Mosley is well known for his views on the tabloid media and has argued for potential privacy victims to be notified before publication of any potential breaches of privacy. But this idea of linking prior notice to prior restraint has been rejected by the European Court of Human Rights because of its implications for political reporting and serious investigative journalism.
Why should mainstream news publishers be bullied through statutory discrimination in liability for punitive damages and legal costs to submit to state sponsored regulation that is effectively bankrolled by Max Mosley?
Mr Mosley has been campaigning on privacy issues ever since the now-defunct News of the World wrongly claimed that his private participation in S&M activities had a public interest link to his fascist father, Sir Oswald.
There may well be an element of poetic justice in his family money being used to advance regulation of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers. But the effects will be unsettling, and apply to all news publishers, whether they have offended Mr Mosley or not.
What we should all be offended by is the arrival and official recognition of a regulatory body that will have significant and damaging powers of interference in the content of our news media.