Last October, after a nine-month process, Impress was approved as an independent and effective regulator by the Press Recognition Panel (PRP).
In the following weeks, more and more publishers began to sign up for the benefits of membership, which include the opportunity to reduce their legal and insurance costs and so publish more investigative journalism.
I have always believed in the power of great journalism. At English PEN, I was a co-founder of the Libel Reform Campaign, which significantly reduced the use of libel threats to silence reporters.
I worked on the No Offence campaign, which gave publishers the freedom to run strongly-worded attacks on religious beliefs in the interests of free speech. And I routinely defended the right of editors – including at the Mail and the Sun – to air the debates that matter and hold the powerful to account.
As a journalist at the Observer, I worked at the soft end of the newsroom – interviews, features, diary stories and book reviews – but I was in awe of the news reporters who went out into the world and somehow came back every time with a story.
That was why I was so pleased when Sir Harry Evans agreed to become a patron of Impress and when the NUJ later came out in support of our work. We agreed that regulation, when it works well, can help journalists and journalism.
A regulator like Impress can protect reporters from bosses who pressure them into unethical behaviour and hang them out to dry when things get tricky. It can help publishers resist the libel bullies by providing a subsidised arbitration service.
And it can help build trust among audiences and advertisers, leading to greater loyalty and stronger business models and – ultimately – helping publishers to survive and thrive in this hypercompetitive market.
That is why I am so disappointed to have let the side down.
Like other journalists and campaigners, I have long used Twitter as a platform to keep track of events, share ideas and information, pose questions and make bad jokes.
Last autumn – around the same time that Impress gained recognition – I stupidly posted some tweets and retweets that made sense in my old context of journalism and campaigning but did not make a lot of sense in my new context of regulation.
Among thousands of other tweets and retweets, I shared a few posts that took aim at the Mail and the Sun, in relation to their coverage of the EU and migration issues.
There is an explanation for these tweets (Britain was agonising about the Brexit decision and the impact of Trump’s election victory in the United States) but there is no excuse for them. The tweets and retweets were ill-judged, and I regret posting them.
When I brought these tweets to the board’s attention, they convened a panel of members to investigate any risk that this kind of activity had compromised Impress’s ability to act as a fair and impartial regulator.
I apologised to the Board and to my colleagues. I left my Twitter account up for as long as it took the review panel to investigate the concerns and then closed it, with – to be honest – a sigh of relief.
The panel considered all the evidence and produced a detailed and comprehensive report, with findings and recommendations. This report was provided to the Press Recognition Panel and has been published in full, now that most of the recommended actions have been completed.
The report found that no Impress decision had been affected by bias or any real possibility of it, not least because the publications in question – the Sun and the Mail – had not expressed any interest in becoming members of Impress.
Nonetheless, the panel concluded that my actions had brought Impress into disrepute and that – in order to mitigate any risk of future bias – I should be recused from any regulatory decisions affecting publishers with turnover above £20m.
I am glad that the review panel has published these findings and recommendations in full. I think it shows that Impress has the capacity and the confidence to take challenges on the chin, to hold itself accountable and to self-correct.
This has been a difficult and embarrassing week. However, it has not changed my belief that good regulation can be part of the future for journalism.
I know that most journalists are serious about providing the public with information that adds value to their lives and their democratic decision-making.
I believe that journalists should be prepared to put their hands up and accept when they have made a mistake. So should regulators. And that’s what I am doing.