Or – Will we ever have a responsible, regulated press in the UK?

Here at the Transparency Project, we are always conscious of the need to balance the interests of freedom of expression with privacy and the public with private interests. These principles were argued vociferously by many people in the context of press reporting when Sir Brian Leveson produced his report on ‘The Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press’ in 2012. Just prior to the outcome of the inquiry, David Cameron famously agreed that the government would accept whatever Sir Brian recommended ‘if it wasn’t bonkers’. However, the government did not accept the recommendations for independent self-regulation, and despite Sir Brian’s determination not to become a ‘footnote in history’, that may seem to have been his fate.

It was therefore very interesting to learn this week that change is indeed in the air – and possibly quite soon. I attended a consultation event held in Cardiff on 14th July by the Press Recognition Panel on its proposals for recognition of press self regulators. The chair of the Panel, David Wolfe, conceded that the legal framework being developed for self-regulation by the press is extremely complex and  I’m not going to try to explain it now. (There’s a good summary here by Hugh Tomlinson.)

It was a highly informative meeting in many ways, not least hearing a lot about community-based journalism and other non-traditional ‘publishers’. There were some very insightful contributions from members of the public. The development I want to highlight is that there does appear to be a real possibility of press self-regulation, because of a change in court rules due in November 2015.

Under section 40 Crime & Courts Act 2013, a newspaper that chooses not to join a recognised regulator may find itself liable to pay not only its own costs in a libel or privacy action, but also the costs of the person claiming against them – even if the defence succeeds.  On the other hand, a paper that does sign up to a regulator is potentially protected from any costs awarded against it, even if it loses. This (I  learnt yesterday) will be implemented from November.

OK – but where is this regulator? The PRP will only recognise and validate a regulator that meets all of its 29 criteria. The only current regulator, IPSO, is reconstituted from the discredited Press Complaints Council, and does not meet the criteria. IPSO is not fully independent of the press industry and is in fact controlled by the largest newspapers. It has even stated that it will not seek recognition for ‘theological reasons’. ‘Hacked Off’ claims that the press are therefore self-appointed judge and jury of their own misdemeanours. But – at least one other organisation, the IMPRESS Project, has already stated that it will seek recognition.  The carrot & stick approach to encouraging the press to regulate itself through a genuinely independent process means that in future, aggrieved individuals who have been defamed or suffered intrusions of their privacy will be able to sue much more easily, if a recognised regulator exists but the newspaper in question decided it would rather stay with IPSO.

Still many issues to be resolved, but a chance that the Leveson report has not, after all, been kicked into the long grass. And if there is a cultural change – maybe one day we will have a genuine complaints system and see responsible reporting about family courts become mainstream!

The consultation is open until 31 July. Take a look at the PRP website.