A founder member of Impress has left the Royal Charter-backed press regulator over concerns about its “transparency and openness”, claiming it tried to “bury” an internal review on impartiality.
Richard Gurner, editor of the Caerphilly Observer, issued a “resignation” notice to Impress on 6 October on behalf of his free fortnightly newspaper and website based in South Wales.
Gurner said he was told he could not simply walk away from the agreement with Impress, but after removing all logos and details about the state-backed regulator from the publication his membership was terminated.
The Observer is the first newspaper to have left Impress while still in print. In October the Ramsey and Warboys Reporter closed as a result of its editor’s ill health and had its agreement terminated as a result.
Gurner told Press Gazette he had been unhappy with Impress’s failure to publicly announce an internal review addressing concerns about its impartiality as a regulator.
He said: “We weren’t told about the investigation, for a start, and we weren’t told about the outcome of the investigation – I had to read about it on Press Gazette.”
The review had been prompted by a dossier of evidence compiled by the News Media Association (NMA), which was reported by The Sun in January, and mainly concerned anti-press posts on Twitter.
As a result, Impress largely banned three of its own board members and its chief executive from dealing with major Fleet Street publishers because of the perception that they would be biased against them.
The report was published in a bullet point at the foot of a press release about more publishers joining its ranks, which Gurner said was “burying” it.
He said: “I thought for an organisation that’s supposed to be supporting transparency and openness it hasn’t really been that open with us.”
Gurner said it was the second time he had felt misled by Impress, the first being its failure to disclose to members the full extent of its funding from press reform campaigner Max Mosley.
The entirety of Impress’s £3.8m funding to 2019 is derived from the Independent Press Regulation Trust, which in turn is solely funded by the Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust, of which Mosley is a trustee.
“I just thought I don’t want there to be a third time,” said Gurner, who claimed a “breach in the agreement” with Impress, specifically section 3.2, which states: “We [Impress] will act fairly and proportionately and in a transparent manner in all our dealings with you.”
“As far as I’m concerned I resigned from them because I wasn’t happy with what I viewed as a lack of transparency,” said Gurner.
“If you have got the head of an organisation not allowed to investigate certain sections of the press, that undermines Impress’s credibility as a regulator… I thought it best if I leave.”
The Observer is now abiding by the Editors’ Code of Practice – the standards set by the Independent Press Standards Organisation – and has joined the Independent Community News Network.
Gurner said: “I understand the pressure Impress is coming under from the NMA, but things like this, it’s damaged their credibility and for an organisation that’s supposed to be promoting transparency they didn’t seem very transparent to me.”
Impress chairman Walter Merricks said in a statement: “We can confirm that there are no regulatory issues outstanding and we have no concerns about the standards of journalism at Caerphilly Observer.
“We regret Caerphilly Observer’s decision and wish Richard Gurner and his team well for the future and thank them for being one of the first members to join Impress.”
Membership of Impress is voluntary but publishers who apply to join must demonstrate that they comply with its internal governance standards before entering into a Regulatory Scheme Agreement.
In the past three months, nine publishers have applied to join Impress and 14 new publications have started to be regulated by it, said a spokesperson, bringing the total number of news publications regulated by Impress to 76.
Press Gazette revealed last week that two Impress board members had previously retweeted messages that questioned the impartiality of BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg.
Picture: Caerphilly Observer