Impress approved as regulatory body amid press freedom 'fears'
A new press regulator has been approved, a move that newspapers fear could see them "blackmailed" into signing up to a state-backed system of regulation they say could jeopardise the independence of the industry.
The Press Recognition Panel, set up under a Royal Charter after the Leveson inquiry into the media, gave its backing to Impress, a regulatory body backed by the former motor sport mogul Max Mosley.
Impress has few members, and most national newspapers have instead signed up to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), a voluntary independent body not backed by the Government.
But the press industry fears its approval could trigger legislation that could force local or national newspapers to pay the costs of libel or privacy actions against them, even if they win their cases, potentially forcing them out of business.
Dr Evan Harris, from Hacked Off, which campaigns for an accountable press, greeted the decision as paving the way for the "first regulator to have proven its independence and effectiveness" under the Leveson system of independent assessment.
He said: "The days of failed industry-controlled regulators like the PCC and its sham replacement Ipso are numbered. Ipso members' desperate attempts to derail the Leveson process with further delays and aggressive threats of legal action against the PRP have failed yet again today.
"This decision makes Impress the only regulator which the public, readers and victims of press abuse can trust to regulate newspapers and safeguard freedom of the press, while offering redress when they get things wrong."
The Royal Charter was established under former prime minister David Cameron following an agreement that the press should be voluntarily and independently self-regulated.
But newspaper organisations say they are being "blackmailed" into joining a Government-backed system of regulation, as those that do so would be exempt from such laws.
The industry warned press freedom is in peril, and leading newspapers have called on Prime Minister Theresa May to refuse to implement the legislation, under section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 (CCA).
The PRP has already called for the Government to bring section 40 into force and Culture Secretary Karen Bradley will have to decide whether to execute it.
Impress chairman Walter Merricks, who was at the meeting of the PRP in central London, called the decision "good news for the press and good news for the public".
He said: "This is the next important step in building a new era of trust between journalists and the public and a significant moment in the history of press regulation in this country.
"For the first time news publishers, both large and small, have the chance to join an independent press regulator which is not controlled by major publishers."
But Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said the decision was "irrelevant" to the reality of press regulation, adding that the vast majority of the press and significant publishers reject the Royal Charter system under which the PRP was set up.
He said: "This is an organisation set up by politicians with public funds but it has no real work to do because Impress represents only a very small number of local publishers.
"The PRP will have no part to play in regulating any of the big publishers and hundreds of local and regional publishers of newspapers and magazines which were examined by the Leveson Inquiry.
"It has spent and will spend public money without any real service to the public. In terms of Leveson's conclusions it is irrelevant.
"That is the reality which the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport talked about when she appeared before the parliamentary select committee yesterday."
Mr Merricks said Impress intends to adopt its own code of practice, which it has been consulting on, but until then will continue to use the Editors' Code of Practice, which Ipso set up and enforces.
There were questions about whether Impress would have the legal right to use the Editors' code, but panel members were told no legal action has been threatened or initiated over the issue.
During discussions the PRP board said it was satisfied over concerns Impress could be open to external influence, such as from those who fund it.
Board member Harry Rich said that while it was "clearly within possibility" that any process funded by a third party could exert influence, he was happy the arguments put forward by Impress were "watertight enough" to prevent any influence.
Concerns over political allegiances among any senior Impress members were also dismissed.
The PRP said that Impress would charge up to £70,000 for publishers or newspaper groups to subscribe to it.
Following the decision, PRP chairman David Wolfe said: "The Royal Charter plays a role in ensuring the freedom of the press while protecting the interests of the public.
"Following a detailed and thorough assessment of Impress' application for recognition, the PRP board has determined that Impress meets the 29 criteria in the Royal Charter, so it has been recognised as an approved regulator."
Ipso, which was set up by most newspapers following the Leveson Inquiry, has chosen not to apply to be signed up to the charter.
An Ipso spokesman said: "We have been regulating the overwhelming majority of the UK's newspapers, magazines and news websites for the last two years and will continue to do so."
The decision to recognise Impress will put pressure on Ms Bradley to implement section 40 of the CCA.
Hacked Off joined the PRP's call for it to be activated, saying: "The Government's refusal to bring that law into effect means that this Government is now actively depriving publishers and journalists of the free speech protections they were promised."
But speaking on Monday, Ms Bradley refused to be drawn on whether she thought either the press or politicians could judge press regulation as she was grilled by MPs from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
She told them she was considering the implementation of section 40 "very carefully", saying: "I have not made a decision about timing and I certainly do not rule out commencing section 40 at some point in the future."
But former culture secretary John Whittingdale said the idea of imposing costs on newspapers even if they win libel and privacy cases was "too draconian".
And Ipso chairman Sir Alan Moses said Section 40 was "designed to force, for fear of financial ruin, all printed media to submit to a regime which they have rejected".