Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford was clearly displeased by the activities of the Stop Funding Hate campaign, which seeks to persuade advertisers not to buy space in papers that routinely publish hate speech and aggressively demonise individuals in pursuit of proprietorial or editorial vendettas. After Lego declared that they would no longer be making promotional offers via the Daily Mail, he laid out his thoughts on the subject.
“The Stop Funding Hate campaign strikes me as an illiberal way to set about achieving the liberal objective of less negative press coverage around immigration”, he declared, going on to ask “What right do a few hundred, or a few thousand, people on social media who don’t read the Daily Mail have to dictate the type coverage read by several million people a day who do read the paper?” But no dictation is taking place.
Then he sells the pass in no style at all by asking “And do we really want advertisers overtly seeking to influence editorial decisions?” to which the answer is, go and put that one to the people at the Telegraph, and mention HSBC to jog their memories. But Ponsford’s stance is clear: he is against any constraint on freedom of speech, any suggestion of censorship. If only he practiced what he preached.
That last point will not be lost on IMPRESS’ head man Jonathan Heawood, who has found himself on the receiving end of Ponsford’s own brand of ambiguous high principles, following the first truly independent press regulator’s removal from the sponsors’ list for this year’s British Journalism Awards. Heawood wrote an article about the affair, which was published by Press Gazette. But it was not published in full.
So Heawood published it at the IMPRESS website, so that anyone wanting to see what had been lost during the editing process could do so. Consider this paragraph, which responds to the idea that the judges objecting to IMPRESS’ sponsorship did so out of adherence to a point of principle.
“Clearly, not all the judges agreed. Christo Hird, a former Editor of the Sunday Times Insight Team and a former Managing Editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, is a BJA judge. He said: ‘It is a matter of regret that six judges applied so much pressure that Dominic Ponsford felt obliged to go back on a decision that had already been made. It is not dissimilar to the pressure that advertisers try to put on editorial content and that editors resist.’” What Heawood said in that last sentence echoes Ponsford’s comment about Stop Funding Hate, but he deleted the sentence - all of it.
Ponsford’s reasoning, which has been made known to Zelo Street - not by Jonathan Heawood, before anyone makes that suggestion - is that he is uneasy about criticising those judges who objected so vehemently to IMPRESS’ presence. They did, after all, give up their own time to do the judging. But for his next cut there was no explanation.
Consider this paragraph: “And what exactly is the principle at stake here? The principle of no platforming anyone who disagrees with you? The principle of putting your head in the sand – and forcing others to put their heads in the sand too – when you hear something you don’t like? Whatever it is, this principle is not one of free speech, which obliges us to air disagreements and alternative viewpoints – even when we do not like what we hear”. All of the highlighted sentence was edited out.
And there was yet more. Jeremy Dear was clearly comfortable giving Heawood a quote, and hence this paragraph: “Jeremy Dear is also a judge of the awards. He said: ‘As one of the judges at the BJA, I was not asked my view about their unilateral action and find it ironic that, on the same day they praise newspapers who have been in breach of the code and newspapers which one day later sack 60 journalists, some judges turn their anger onto a regulator which is seeking to safeguard press freedom and rebuild trust in the media.’” Apart from acknowledging his being a judge, all of that paragraph was cut.
Ponsford’s reasoning was that, somehow, Jeremy Dear’s quote broke the collective confidence of the judging room. But that decision should surely be down to Jeremy Dear and Jonathan Heawood, not Dominic Ponsford. And we’re not finished yet.
Heawood’s final paragraph, “At IMPRESS, we will continue to get on with the job of offering independent, fair, impartial and transparent press regulation. Because, as Peter Preston noted in the Observer recently, ‘IMPRESS is here to stay.’” was cut out of the article. Perhaps someone will be able to offer a reasonable explanation as to why something so innocuous should be excised. But I doubt it.
IMPRESS was invited to become a sponsor - there was no lobbying or other attempt to persuade Press Gazette to accept them. They were then not merely treated shoddily, but treated shoddily and very publicly, as Roy Greenslade at the Guardian reported.
Then, to add insult to injury, Jonathan Heawood was given the opportunity to comment on the affair - and his article was blatantly and gratuitously censored, apparently to spare the blushes of the anonymous objecting judges (one of whom we can be fairly certain is former Screws executive Neil Wallis).
But the one participant in this sorry story to whom no blame should be attributed is Dominic Ponsford, despite his being the hand hovering over the delete key. That is because he had little alternative but to allow the press establishment to lean on him. Had he done otherwise, Press Gazette would not have kept well.
Thus concludes another salutary lesson in just how free all that free speech proclaimed by that same press establishment really is. Plus the mix of horror and blind panic in the press’ ranks at the sight of a truly independent press regulator. I’ll just leave that one there.