Tomorrow could be a very big day in the long and less than illustrious history of press regulation in the UK: the Press Recognition Panel (PRP) is meeting to consider an application from new and properly independent regulator Impress for recognition under the terms of the Royal Charter on press regulation, which was drafted and passed by Parliament in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry and its recommendations.
After previously adjourning proceedings to ensure anyone and everyone who wanted to respond could do so, and be shown to have had the time and means to do so - the press establishment has been objecting at every turn, threatening legal action on any grounds it can find - Impress’ application will be heard, pored over, and the PRP will make its decision. It is expected that Impress will gain recognition.
The PRP has also recommended that Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale stalled over, be commenced. This combination of events has sent the press establishment into headless chicken mode, with their leading lights, the Mail and Sun, pouring out misinformation in a last-ditch attempt to stop the exercise. The dishonesty being deployed has reached new depths.
The Mail devoted an editorial to knocking the whole exercise last Friday: “Next week an obscure quango will take a decision which could - at a stroke - undo 300 proud years of Press freedom in Britain … a self-appointed organisation called Impress … [Impress has] money - £3.8million of it, from multimillionaire motor-racing tycoon Max Mosley … the zealots of Hacked Off … it will set in place a system of State licensing”.
No it won’t. The Mail was so desperate that it had to lie in order to get its propaganda across. Impress is properly independent, and the PRP takes no orders from this or any other Government. It too is independent. No proprietor, editor or politician gets to put the arm on Impress, and nor does Max Mosley, despite what the Mail suggests. The money from the Alexander Mosley charitable trust (note correct source) has been committed.
Nor is this Mail nugget all that it seems: “Once Impress is recognised by the PRP, any newspaper which does not sign up faces being punished by exemplary damages in libel actions. Far more insidiously, it can be forced to pay the other side's legal costs - which can run into millions - even if it WINS its case”. Let’s consider the fact of this matter.
Only if a publisher refuses to have a complaint go to a recognised press regulator’s low-cost arbitration system would that publisher have to pay both sides’ costs - in other words, the publisher would have to decline to take the reasonable course of action. And there would be a credibility threshold for claims - the idea, floated by the Sun, of being taken to court for publishing demonstrably true copy would not arise.
So when the Mail claims “This would hand a blank cheque to anyone to sue any newspaper, however risible their case, knowing it won't cost them a penny”, it is once more lying. It is also untrue to claim “The great irony is that this onslaught comes when the Press has never been more tightly regulated”. IPSO is not more tight regulation than what has gone before. It is the old PCC fluid in a differently labelled bottle.
It gets worse: “The industry responded vigorously to Leveson, setting up a powerful watchdog, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, whose board has a majority of independent members, and which regularly requires newspapers to make front page corrections, most notably on behalf of the Queen. It has not applied for Royal Charter recognition because its members believe, quite rightly, that it is the back door to control by politicians”. This is arrant bullshit. But let’s take it one whopper at a time.
There has not yet been a front page correction, even for the Sun’s infamous “QUEEN BACKS BREXIT” porkie. One was indicated on the front page in suitably coded and discreet language - in very small type. The reason IPSO has not applied for recognition is that it would stop the press being able to mark their own homework.
The Mail carries a coded threat to the Government to backtrack on the whole process. The Sun today does not bother with the coding, simply frothing “We call on Theresa May not go down in history as the Prime Minister who killed free press”. And lying by claiming “UK newspapers may be forced to sign up to being regulated by politicians”. There is no participation by politicians in any recognised regulator.
Nor is Impress “State backed” as the Sun claims. As for “Impress - a creation of free speech-hating celebrities and the Left-leaning activists of Hacked Off, funded by the odious Max Mosley - has no more than a few dozen obscure blogs to its name”, it was an independent creation. No celebrity, nor Hacked Off, have been involved in its creation.
But on drone the Murdoch droids: “Signing up to Impress would mean granting the State an indirect hand in what the once-free Press could publish, when it is the primary job of the Press to hold those in power to account”. No hand, direct or indirect, would be given.
Then comes the most serious and direct threat: “Today, The Sun appeals directly to Prime Minister Theresa May: Do not let this historic calamity happen on your watch … It is State-sponsored blackmail … In IPSO Britain already has a Press regulator free from State control and with the power to compel newspapers to account for our errors”.
Yeah, right. IPSO, like the PCC before it, is a sham and toothless with it.
What the Murdoch press is telling our Government is that they should be allowed to carry on marking their own homework, OR ELSE. All recommendations, like those of the PRP, should be discarded and instead only the ones under whose watch all the bad behaviour happened should be adopted. Well, sorry, Murdoch doggies, but I don’t buy that one.
The Royal Charter was passed by both Houses of Parliament. It provides for those traduced by bad, malicious, bullying, unprincipled and insensitive newspaper editors, their proprietors, and their compliant hacks to at least get redress. It does not prohibit or in any way abridge free speech. Indeed, free speech is protected by the Charter.
All the press establishment is trying to do is to carry on pleasing itself, and have a sham regulator like IPSO wipe its backsides afterwards. The Government should stand firm and, if Impress is recognised, commence Section 40 immediately afterwards.
That is the least all those victims of press misbehaviour deserve. What we have right now is not fit fir purpose, and should not be allowed to continue uncontested.