Questions for the Impress Project, part I

Last Monday, my former colleagues Jonathan Heawood and Lisa Appignanesi launched the Impress project. This is an attempt to devise a new press regulator that is compliant with the principles of the Leveson Report, but also tempered to resist being nobbled by either the politicians or the press.

There was some sneering at the initiative – Mick Hume accused Impress of being part of an ‘ethical elite’ – but I do not seen anything snobbish or condescending in what the project is doing (indeed, Hume’s article reeks of inverted-snobbery). Heawood’s introductory article shows a willingness to debate and no little humility:

We have drafted a prospectus to show how it may be possible to build a regulator which is truly independent of newspaper owners and politicians. We don’t have all the answers, but we have some ideas. And – unlike the people behind Ipso – we would like to talk about them.

It would be a shame if people like Mick Hume refused to engage with projects like Impress, just because a regulator ‘in compliance with Leveson’s criteria’ (as the Impress prospectus puts it) is ideologically problematic. Indeed, those who are hostile to the idea of regulation must engage, or leave the field to others who place less value on press freedom.

Now, I work in the field of free expression and I am desperately worried about how press regulation in the UK will pan out. But if people like Mick Hume choose to snub the Impress Project, I will at least engage. The political climate is such that some form of regulator will emerge in the coming year: The ‘Royal Charter’ has been approved and the Crime & Courts Act (which includes enabling legislation for a regulator) has been on the statue books since April. These laws were badly drafted and rushed, and now present specific problems that must be solved. They present a challenge to the Impress Project, or any other would-be-regulator.

For example, Hume refers to the possibility that exemplary damages and costs might be awarded against a newspaper, even if they won a libel case. In October, Helen Anthony (who advises my employer English PEN1on legal issues) analysed the provisions in the Crime & Courts Act 2013 that would enable such costs orders. She labelled them ‘coercive’.

So any regulator that claims the word ‘voluntary’ needs to urgently address this problem. What is the Impress Project’s answer to the issue?

It also needs to be solid the corollary issue of which outlets should be regulated. Neither Sir Brian Leveson nor the Department of Culture, Media and Sport were clear on this point. Several sections of the Crime & Courts Act deal with ‘relevant publishers’ and the sanctions they face if they do not submit to regulation. Impress claims to have free speech at the heart of the organisation – it might burnish its credentials by calling for reform of the Crime & Courts Act in places where unnecessary and illiberal coercion has crept into the (woefully under-scrutinised) legislation.


1. I don’t usually feel it necessary to reiterate that everything on my blog is me writing in a personal capacity. But when I am making notes on something that is a core concern of English PEN, its prudent to remind readers of the distinction.

One thought on “Questions for the Impress Project, part I

  1. Hi Robert

    Impress can answer for themselves but it strikes me that there are a number of false assumptions in your interesting post.

    The system is voluntary but *incentivised* self-regulation. The question of whether or not the carrots and sticks amount to “coercion” is moot. The more interesting question is whether the carrots and sticks are reasonable, justified and proportionate is the key question.

    This response http://inforrm.wordpress.com/2013/11/04/press-regulation-debate-supporting-the-leveson-system-a-reply-to-helen-anthony-hugh-tomlinson-qc/ to the Helen Anthony blog which you cited (and which has not been re-rebutted) is persuasive as to why the carrots and sticks are justified and proportionate.

    The other point is, of course, that if the failure of the PCC and what went before is conceded (which I believe it is by all but the likes of Mick Hume) then it is incumbent on critics of Leveson to suggest a different way of ensuring that regulation in the future is “self”, “independent” and “effective”. Leveson, after an 18 month inquiry, came up with his considered and widely-supported recommendations. It is not clear what your or Helen’s solution would be or what the specific amendments to the Crime and Courts Act 2013 are desired.

    You cite as an example of alleged flaws in the legislation “the possibility that exemplary damages and costs might be awarded against a newspaper, even if they won a libel case.”

    Exemplary damages can never (in the past or in the future) be awarded if the newspaper won a libel case. Exemplary damages are available already to the courts in libel cases and are very rare. The main change there in the Crime and Courts Act is that membership of a recognised regulator gives a publisher IMMUNITY.

    You also say ” It also needs to be solid the corollary issue of which outlets should be regulated. Neither Sir Brian Leveson nor the Department of Culture, Media and Sport were clear on this point”.

    The legislation (sections 41, 42 and Schedule 15) is clear on which news publishers would face greater court costs (and the risk of exemplary damages) if sued and were not members of a recognised self-regulator (not “which outlets should be regulated”), and which (a wider group) would face costs protection and immunity from exemplary damages if sued but were members of a recognised self-regulator.

    Evan

    Associate Director
    Hacked Off

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