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.