Preaching to the Press

Is the British press unintentionally aiding efforts to implement state-backed press regulation?

Last October, IMPRESS became the first Royal Charter-backed press regulator in Britain after its application was approved by the Press Recognition Panel (PRP), the government-funded body set up in the wake of the 2012 Leveson Report to oversee press regulation.

The decision to approve IMPRESS has proven controversial with the British press, with speculation about its motives and sources of funding.

What the press thinks of IMPRESS (source)

One particularly controversial area of concern is the involvement of motor racing tycoon Max Mosley, son of notorious wartime fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley.

British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley (source)

In 2008, the younger Mosley – who currently funds IMPRESS via two charitieswon a court case against disgraced British tabloid the News of the World (now defunct) after it reported about his participation in what it termed a “sick Nazi orgy” with prostitutes.

2008-news-of-the-world-max-mosley-story

Sleazy 2008 report by News of the World (source)

Critics claim Mosley has a vendetta against the popular press, and is bankrolling IMPRESS using his father’s money to serve a personal agenda – accusations he has repeatedly denied, albeit unconvincingly.

Another primary area of concern is Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, under which publishers who are not a member of an approved regulator could soon face “exemplary” damages – for instance having to pay their opponent’s costs in libel and privacy cases, regardless of who wins.

Critics argue Section 40 could undermine a “vibrant local press” by “blackmailing” publishers into joining, otherwise face “draconian” sanctions.

These are fair and principled criticisms, and the British press is right to be concerned that state-backed regulation presents a threat to freedom of the press. However, critics would be wise to listen to and acknowledge pro-regulation arguments – if not to reconcile their aims with those of Leveson, then to save their own neck.

Lord Justice Leveson (source)

Take for example The Sun, one of several British tabloids to come under close scrutiny during the 2011 Leveson Inquiry. A fierce opponent of state-backed press regulation, it casually dismisses pro-regulation campaigners like Hacked Off as “leftie plotters.”

the-sun-2012-leftie-plotters-headline

The Sun’s gratuitous “leftie plotters” headline (source)

Are supporters of Leveson likely to find this sort of language persuasive? Or is The Sun merely preaching to the converted?

Another recent example, by way of the Daily Telegraph, perfectly illustrates the way in which the British press is carelessly sowing the seeds of its own destruction. As reported on this blog, last month the Telegraph published a sensationalist article about Steve McNought, whose Bristol-based publishing company Arkbound was recently approved by IMPRESS.

The January 21, 2017 article, “Armed robber turned publisher wins approval from state-approved Press regulator funded by Max Mosley” by the Sunday Telegraph’s chief reporter Robert Mendick, focused on McNought’s criminal past, namely a series of armed robberies he committed in 2007-08 for which he received a 12-year prison sentence.

the-telegraph-january-21-2017-article

The Telegraph’s January 21, 2017 article (source)

The details of McNought’s US crime spree would make for a compelling episode of True Crimes, but that’s not what the Telegraph intended; as McNought told me in a comment on this blog, the article was a clear attempt to undermine Impress, using me as a tool to do so, in the most nasty and underhand way.”

In other words, the Telegraph fulfilled the worst expectations of its critics, betraying the principles of ethical journalism – if not the “full spirit” of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) code of practice to which it supposedly subscribes. To boot, McNought says he is considering legal action against the Telegraph for allegedly falsely reporting about his crimes and infringing his privacy.

The “draconian” Section 40 is presently awaiting a final signature from Culture Secretary Karen Bradley. Question: Is the British press willing to risk its hard-won freedoms for the sake of a few cheap shots at its political opponents?

Let’s hope not.

See also: “Crime and Regulation,” my January 24, 2017 item re: Steve McNought’s full response to the Telegraph’s article about his criminal past.

And: “The Case for Regulation,” my October 31, 2016 item re: Members of IMPRESS answer criticism that state-backed regulation could undermine a “vibrant local press.”

And: “UnIMPRESSed,” my October 27, 2016 item re: Two publications are no longer applying to join IMPRESS – with another on the fence.

The Case for Regulation

Members of UK official press regulator IMPRESS answer criticism that state-backed regulation could undermine a “vibrant local press”

Last week, I blogged about IMPRESS, which recently gained recognition as the first official press regulatory body in the UK.

The decision was made by the Press Recognition Panel (PRP), the government-funded body set up in the wake of the 2012 Leveson Report to oversee press regulation.

Under Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which has been passed by Parliament but is awaiting a final signature from Culture Secretary Karen Bradley, publishers who are not a member of an approved regulator could face “exemplary” damages – for instance, having to pay their opponent’s costs in libel and privacy cases.

Critics argue that Section 40 could undermine a “vibrant local press” by “blackmailing” publishers into joining, otherwise face “draconian” sanctions.

I asked members of IMPRESS about the above criticisms. Here are their responses.


Stephen Rodgers – author at The Week in
I think the only people who would talk about ‘state backed press regulation undermining vibrant, local press’ are members of a cosy club who resisted Leveson, rejected its findings and continue to regulate themselves while using the word ‘independent.’

I went through the membership process for IMPRESS and found nothing to concern me or make me think I would have to change the way I operate. In fact, I think it actually offers more protection for small organisations like mine.

I can fully understand why the nationals are throwing their toys out of the pram. Nobody has ever dared to stand up to them in the past and I really hope the government does proceed with Section 40. Given that most governments still run scared of the press, somehow I don’t imagine it is going to happen though.

Martin Childs – Business Partner, Shropshire Live
We acknowledge that for their own reasons mainstream publishers may be critical of IMPRESS, but as a small independent publisher here is our reason for joining.

Being a trusted news source for our community was our top priority and it is important for us to be regulated in some way and have some support.

We were not forced to join, neither is any publication under the current rules, but we saw the benefit it could bring to a publication like ours and importantly it was a good sign for our readers to know that we can be a trusted source of local news.

It is open to any UK regulator organisation to be apply to be recognised under the Royal Charter and IMPRESS is the first to do that, so we were proud to be a member.

The Leveson inquiry was a long and detailed investigation and concluded on the ways the UK Press could be improved, making several recommendations that we think should be followed. We believe we have high ethical editorial content and recognise the importance of following certain standards as publishing content in press or online has great responsibility.

By joining IMPRESS it gives us the confidence to pursue stories knowing we have the help and backing of an independent regulator who can offer an arbitration scheme should any breach occur.

By having local press regulated it produces a higher level of quality news and journalism which can only be a good thing for all!

Spokesperson for The Ferret
The Ferret signed up because we think the media needs independent regulation to ensure public trust and we took into account the views of the National Union of Journalists who also backed Impress.

We lack the financial resources of many media so adopting Impress as our regulator offers us low-cost arbitration and potential legal protection, which is vital for our sustainability. We are committed to conducting investigations in the public interest and to publishing journalism of a high standard that is both accurate and fair. If we do receive any complaints in the future then Impress should help us to resolve them fairly and cost effectively.

Daniel Ionescu – Managing Editor, The Lincolnite
Stonebow Media are proud to be one of the founding members of IMPRESS with our three market leading publications in Lincolnshire – The Lincolnite, Lincolnshire Reporter and Lincolnshire Business. We reach more than half a million people every month, more than any traditional publisher in our patch.

Critics of IMPRESS appear to be intentionally misleading. Indeed, with Section 40, publishers not part of an approved regulator would have to pay all the costs, even if they win the case. With IMPRESS, that would not be the case.

In particular that is because before any case would go to court, it would have to go through a mediation process via IMPRESS. This mediation process is capped at £3,500, which is considerably lower than solicitors’ cost, and within the financial means of most local publishers (most of which are part of national chains).

As is the case now, anyone attempting to sue a publication without attempting mediation, risks having their case thrown out. With Section 40 and under IMPRESS, it would be even more likely to stop at the mediation process. Even IPSO has a similar process in place.

Also, let’s not forget the Leveson inquiry was about national publications misbehaving on an industrial scale over a long period of time. Local/regional publications have not been singled out, but as a matter of fact, actually praised for their practices.

If any local publishers are concerned about the implementation of Section 40, they should join IMPRESS and benefit from full protection and independent mediation, should that be required.

James Cracknell – Editor, Waltham Forest Echo
Trust in British journalism has collapsed after of a series of high-profile scandals (phone-hacking, Hillsborough etc) and an astonishing dedication to masking the truth that is still displayed on a daily basis by several major publications (The Sun, Daily Express etc).
The need to establish a new press regulator is the direct result of this collapse in trust.

The need to make that regulator become “state backed” as you call it is also the direct result of this collapse in trust. In an ideal world, a “state backed” regulator would not be necessary, but the failings of the PCC and now IPSO, which remains just another stooge of the major publishers, means that an alternative such as IMPRESS is needed.

How else can trust be restored? Even in the EU referendum this year, it became clear that the media was failing the public by publishing lies on their front pages. Your question regarding Section 40 should not be levelled against IMPRESS; they did not write that law. As the editor of a local paper that is a member of IMPRESS I feel reassured, not undermined.

Steve McNought – Director, Arkbound
The background to IMPRESS should be considered [in context]: how the UK media [had] no Leveson-compliant regulator; how the UK has one of the most concentrated media in the world, with little diversity and ownership by three main companies; the history of inaccuracies and even illegal activity by some mainstream press; poor enforcement of the Editors Code of Conduct by IPSO; insipid and ongoing connections with mass media owners and the Government; misrepresentation of disadvantaged groups and current issues; blatant party-political propaganda by some publications (not marked as opinion)….. and so on.

By developing a consistent, Leveson-compliant framework, IMPRESS has the capacity to infuse greater public confidence, proper accountability and diversity in the media – tackling the above problems. I’m not saying IMPRESS is flawless – I’ve raised concerns and criticisms with them myself – but I believe they are a much needed step forward.

It seems to me that references to ‘blackmailing’ and ‘draconian sanctions’ are misplaced and inaccurate. One could frame the ‘regulation’ of IPSO and the [non]enforcement of the Editors Code of Conduct – to the great detriment of individuals, disadvantaged groups and society as a whole – in a far worse light.

…I believe there is a strong case for a properly regulated media, in line with the Leveson Report and recommendations thereof. Most democratic nations have some form of enforceable code of conduct for the press, which helps uphold accuracy and deters the inappropriate promotion of powerful private interests (as has become the modus operandi of the UK’s media). It is not a question of organisations being forced to comply, but of them not breaking a code of conduct that exists to protect (not undermine) media freedom and its public interest connotations.

It is about re-asserting good journalism values  – taking media back as a tool for information, education and enlightenment. Those principles originate from the Renaissance Printing Press that resulted in a new age of progress, something that (arguably) has never been emulated since. Like all tools, without some kind of oversight or regulatory framework, such a mechanism of good can be used for less laudable purposes. To any informed and impartial mind, a glance through the UK’s tabloids (and many of the purportedly better publications) is proof of that. I could quote a few examples but this email would soon end up becoming the length of a book.