What does a new press regulator mean for the independent community news sector?

By Matt Abbott | 26th Oct 2016

A long-awaited decision in the community news sector was reached yesterday (25th October) as Impress became the first officially recognised UK press regulator in history after meeting all the criteria set out in the Leveson Royal Charter.

The Press Recognition Panel (PRP) gave Impress the go-ahead after an open and public meeting held in central London, and streamed live on Periscope.

But what does this mean for the hyperlocal and community news sector?

How the industry reacted

Many prominent journalists and campaigners have welcomed the news that an officially recognised body will now regulate the press. After two years of campaigning, Impress hailed the decision as ‘the next important step in building an era of trust between journalists and the public, and a significant moment in the history of press regulation in this country.’ Hacked Off’s joint executive Evan Harris said the decision would ‘safeguard freedom of the press, while offering redress if they get things wrong.’

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) also welcomed the news saying it will work and cooperate with Impress.

However, those currently signed up with IPSO have condemned the decision as an attack on free speech that will expose the press to a state-sponsored watchdog.

Impress Vs IPSO

  • Impress currently represents only 50 publications, all of which are hyperlocal or community news publishers.
  • IPSO has over 2,000 members, including the Daily Mail, the Sun, and the Times.
  • Impress was set up in the wake of the Royal Charter and have been campaigning for the last two years to become the UK’s only recognised press regulator.
  • IPSO is a self-regulating body set up as a successor to the PCC. They have not sought formal recognition by the government and have indicated they have no intention of doing so.
  • IPSO is funded by its members.
  • Impress is funded by the Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust (a charity set up by long-time press campaigner Max Mosley).
  • Both have the power to launch a standards investigation and issue fines of up to £1m.

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Section 40

While Impress will no doubt want to attract some high profile signatories, members of IPSO are unlikely to be swayed by the Charter’s recognition of an alternative body. Media organisations will not be forced to sign up to the new regulator, but not doing so could leave them vulnerable to exemplary damages under Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013.

“Section 40 states that organisations that are not members of an approved regulator would have to pay the legal costs of those suing them for libel whether they win or lose the case.”

But this is the big issue. Section 40 has not yet been activated.

It is not clear whether the government, under Culture Secretary Karen Bradley, will trigger it; whether the House of Lords will overrule any decision not to, or, in the unlikely event of a snap general election, a Labour government would reintroduce it.

Until that time, or until we have a different piece of legislation, the situation remains unclear.

What is apparent now is that:

  • Impress members would be free from any such law under the use of its low-cost arbitration service.
  • It currently costs claimants over £3,000 to sue a publication.
  • Under the Impress scheme, it would be free. Claimants could take a publication to court knowing it won’t cost them anything, even if they lose.
  • This could lead to a potential increase in cases brought against the press.

The concept laid out in Section 40 was described as ‘draconian’ by former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale on yesterday’s BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme. (02:33:10).

He said: ‘If you bring in these sanctions you are going to punish every newspaper across the country. It is completely wrong.’ Mr Whittingdale hinted there could be other incentives, though he did not disclose what these might be.

While Karen Bradley hasn’t ruled out triggering Section 40, industry leaders are confident the clause will never be activated.

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So what does this mean for the community news sector?

It is not a minor point that Impress is currently backed primarily by hyperlocal and community news publications. It is publishers in this sector which fear they have the most to lose if Section 40 is activated. A libel suit could, in one stoke, spell the end for a hyperlocal publication struggling to remain competitive even if they won the case. Whereas the colossal financial clout of traditional media organisations could incur the costs and continue with business as usual, although not without considerable umbrage.

Professor of communications and former head of the School of Journalism, Media and Culture at Cardiff University, Justin Lewis said: ‘For the hyperlocal and community news sector this decision is only the first stage. In many ways nothing will change until the government trigger Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. What matters is what powers Impress has. What’s important for the sector and what it means for those currently signed up to Impress remains to be seen.’

At the Centre for Community Journalism our vision is simple: to see more jobs in journalism at the local level, and to promote quality journalism across the whole sector.

Centre Manager Emma Meese said: ‘We congratulate Impress on being recognised as the UK’s first official press regulator, and welcome their new role in the sector. We hope they will continue to support hyperlocal and community news publishers as they continue to build on the progress they have made to date.’

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