The Press Recognition Panel, set up in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry, has approved Max Mosley-funded body Impress as an official press watchdog under the government’s Royal Charter, even though it has only a handful of members.
It potentially opens the way to the implementation of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which states that any publisher not signed-up to an approved regulator would have to pay both sides’ costs in a libel or privacy action, whether they win or lose.
However industry leaders are confident the controversial clause will never be activated after culture secretary Karen Bradley suggested she would take a fresh look at the issue.
Speaking to the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee on Monday, Ms Bradley said: “We expected and hoped that the Press would join regulators that applied for recognition under the PRP. That simply has not happened.
“I could do an ideological position on this but the implications may be that we see a vibrant, free, local press being affected.
“It has been put to me very clearly by a number of editors of local newspapers that the exemplary damages section of Section 40 could see them being put out of business and would impact on their ability to do investigative journalism.
“I want to consider those representations very carefully, and then make a determination. I am reserving judgment at this stage until I have had a chance to consider all the options.”
The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), to which most UK newspaper publishers have opted to subscribe, has made clear it has no intention of applying for recognition on the grounds that it amounts to state-sponsored regulation of the press.
Impress has attracted only a handful of hyperlocal publishers and none of the big national or regional groups.
Reacting to Mrs Bradley’s comments, Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell said: “It is quite clear that the Minister wants to consider the real world, as it is now rather than in the past.
“Karen Bradley said she, and she hoped all politicians, wanted a strong and viable free Press. She is right, that would be bastion for the public against the wild west of social media.”
Criticising yesterday’s decision to name Impress as the approved regulator, Bob added: “The PRP was more concerned with the process of its own reason for existence than the reality of press regulation.
“This is an organisation set up by politicians with public funds but in has no real work to do because Impress represents only a very small number of local publishers.”
Lynne Anderson, deputy director of the News Media Association, added: “We are disappointed by the PRP’s decision to recognise Impress, a regulator funded by Max Mosley and set up in order to trigger punitive costs sanctions against Britain’s press.
“However, we welcome reports that the government has decided to pull back from implementing Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which would inhibit a free press and have a crippling effect on regional and local newspapers.
“Over 90 per cent of UK newspapers and magazines – over 1500 print and 1100 online titles – have voluntarily signed up to a system of self-regulation under IPSO which has been found to be both effective and independent of the industry. A small number of micro businesses and multi-author blogs have been persuaded to join Impress quite unnecessarily, given they are excluded from the definition of relevant publisher.
“Not a single significant national or regional newspaper or magazine has signed up to the state-sponsored system of regulation under the PRP.”
She said: “Our objection to IPSO has always been that it is an organisation that represents the interests of the proprietors and management of newspapers. The union has long-held policy on the need for independent regulation that involves journalists, as well as the industry and representatives of the public.
“Our position on a regulator is one which focuses on ethical issues, our own code of conduct and offers the broadest protections for journalists and responsible journalism.
“We have also campaigned for a journalists’ conscience clause to safeguard them from being compelled by their bosses to act unethically in pursuit of a story; so far IPSO has failed to offer this.”
Announcing the decision, David Wolfe, chair of the PRP Board, said: “The Royal Charter plays a role in ensuring the freedom of the press while protecting the interests of the public.
“Following a detailed and thorough assessment of IMPRESS’ application for recognition, the PRP Board has determined that IMPRESS meets the 29 criteria in the Royal Charter, so it has been recognised as an approved regulator.”
Walter Merricks, chair of IMPRESS added: “The PRP decision is good news for the press and good news for the public. This is the next important step in building a new era of trust between journalists and the public and a significant moment in the history of press regulation in this country.
“For the first time news publishers, both large and small, have the choice to join an independent press regulator which is not controlled by major publishers.