Should our newspapers be regulated by the state or by their own independent regulatory body? Many politicians and celebrities are convinced that the state must decide what can and can’t be published in the press. MPs are still furious that the Daily Telegraph was allowed to expose wide scale abuse of their parliamentary expenses. That, they reckon, would never have happened if the press had been subject to state regulation. Celebrities have mixed reasons for wishing the press to be muzzled by the state. Many of them have, I am sure, been horribly hounded by awful tabloid journalists. Others have, like the MPs, been revealed doing bad things. What the MPs and the celebrities have in common is a desire to see the freedom of the press greatly curtailed so as to protect them from what they consider to be unreasonable intrusions into their lives.
The newspapers, not surprisingly, are appalled at the notion that the state, even at arm’s length, should be able to stifle their freedom of expression.
And then there are the rest of us, those who have no particular axe to grind but who, on the whole, are inclined to think a free press is a good thing. We greatly disapprove of some of the methods used by some of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers (hacking emails, telephones etc.) in order to get their stories. We can see the point that, although such behaviour is criminal, already prohibited by the law, there ought to be measures in place, within the industry, to prevent abuses of that sort.
Parliament has a tendency to overreact (think of dangerous dogs and handguns). It overreacted to tales of excesses on the part of the tabloid newspapers. In particular, it opted for a press regulator to be appointed by the state. And, worse than that, it enacted Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. That is the provision which will, if it is ever brought into force, require newspapers which are not signed up to the state regulator to pay the costs of claimants who unsuccessfully sue them for libel. Yes, that is right. If a newspaper accuses X of being a paedophile and X sues for libel but loses, because the newspaper proves he is a paedophile, the newspaper will have to pay X’s costs. I am sure Parliament passes many unjust laws, but that one really does take the biscuit. Of course, if it is brought into force, the judges will do all in their power to minimise its effect. But, in the end, the courts have to bow to Parliament’s will.
The reason why this subject is again topical is that the state, in the form of the Press Recognition Panel (PRP), has just approved the appointment of a body called Impress as the official state regulator of newspapers. Until that happened there was no possibility of Section 40 applying. But it is now open to Karen Bradley, the Secretary of State, to make an order providing that it should come into force.
Impress is entirely funded by Max Mosley. He is a celebrity who has actively campaigned for the press to be subject to state censorship (a tabloid printed some sordid story about his unusual sexual activities and, not surprisingly, he was rather cross). Although, as PRP has admitted, it was always assumed that the approved regulator would be funded by the newspapers themselves, that turned out to be impossible, because no newspaper was prepared to sign up to state regulation. So PRP has had to make the best of a bad job and accept Mosley’s money..
Long before PRP got round to approving a state regulator, the newspapers set up their own regulator (Ipso). Most national newspapers and local newspapers have submitted to Ipso’s jurisdiction. The Guardian and the Financial Times have made their own arrangements, but almost every other ‘paper you can name has signed up with Ipso.
Ipso is truly independent. It is chaired by an eminent retired Lord Justice of Appeal, Sir Alan Moses. The majority of its board members are not journalists or newspaper managers. It is pretty well universally accepted to be performing extremely well.
The Hacked Off campaigners (the disgruntled celebrities who want state censorship) tell us that there is practically no difference between Ipso and Impress and, therefore, the newspapers should jump ship and submit to the state regulator. Why, one could be forgiven for asking, should the press dump a perfectly good regulatory body, fully funded by the newspapers and not subject to any interference by politicians, in order to opt for an unproved alternative, funded by an anti-press campaigner who is eager for the state to stifle free expression?
In fact, of course, no newspaper will sign up with Impress unless the Secretary of State brings the infamous Section 40 into force. If she does do that, it must be possible that some local newspapers, who would probably be financially crippled by having to pay the costs of unsuccessful libel claimants, would, with extreme reluctance, cave in and join Impress. But my guess is that no national newspaper will submit to state regulation even though, wholly unjustly, they end up having to pay gigantic costs to unsuccessful litigants.
If Section 40 is not brought into force (I would prefer it to be repealed), the result will be that Mr Mosley’s millions will be spent on an organisation which will only be regulating the two or three rather dotty websites which, quite unnecessarily since they are anyway exempt from the provisions of Section 40, have joined Impress. Some may say that that would be unfair on Mr Mosley, but it seems to me that he can always cut his losses and close Impress down. Even if he does get his tentacles around a few local newspapers he will still be spending a vast fortune for the privilege. But I suppose he would say that seeing national newspapers having to fork out enormous costs to crooks and sexual perverts would be sufficient reward.
It is absolutely vital that Karen Bradley should resist the calls of Hacked Off (and MPs cross about the expenses scandal) to bring Section 40 into force. Press freedom is worth fighting for. Some, perhaps many, of her colleagues may shun her in the House of Commons Tea Room, but the rest of us will applaud her for championing our right to have a free press.