The chief executive of News UK Mike Darcey has asked the Press Recognition Panel not to consider applications from potential regulators with no members.
News UK’s titles – The Times, Sunday Times and Sun – have, along with the majority of national and regional newspaper publishers, signed up for the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which replaced the old Press Complaints Commission in September last year. The Guardian, Financial Times, Evening Standard and Independent titles have so far not signed up to any external regulators.
While IPSO is not applying for recognition from the PRP, rival press regulator IMPRESS is preparing to do so. IMPRESS so far has no members, but has revealed interest from independent local publishers.
The PRP was created in 2014 as a result of a cross-party press regulation Royal Charter passed in 2013.
In order for a regulator to be recognised by the PRP, it must meet the Leveson criteria set out in the Royal Charter. The PRP is currently in a consultation process into how it interprets the Leveson criteria. The deadline for submissions to the consultation is today, and Darcey's letter is a part of it.
Once a regulator has been recognised, its members will be protected from paying claimants’ legal costs under a clause in the Crime and Courts Act.
In an interview with Press Gazette, David Wolfe QC, chair of the PRP, named this as one of the main incentives for publishers signing up for a recognised regulator.
“The cost benefit for a publisher is partly in the Crime and Courts Act. You won’t face exemplary damages," he said.
“If you are publishing and you are part of a recognised regulator and somebody sues you, you won’t get any costs against you. At the moment if you’re the Salford Star and somebody threatens to sue you, you run the risk of having to pay their costs. That risk will be taken away from you."
But in his letter to Wolfe, Darcey said that as well as incentivising publishers to join, it is also "designed to punish publishers who do not choose to join an approved regulator once one exists, regardless of the effectiveness of the publishers’ own regime".
He added: "We do not accept that the recognition of a body with no industry support should trigger punitive measures threatening freedom of speech."
Darcey's letter said in full:
I am writing regarding your current consultation into the criteria against which you will assess any applications received from potential press regulators.
“News UK is particularly concerned that the whole recognition process might allow one regulator, which currently has no members, to kick-start a process that will have a huge impact on the press’s ability to report and investigate. One key point is that recognition must surely be open only to a regulator that actually has members.
“Schedule 4 of the Royal Charter on Self-Regulation of the Press says: ‘For the purposes of this Charter: a) “Regulator” means an independent body formed by or on behalf of relevant publishers for the purpose of conducting regulatory activities in relation to their publications’. A recognised regulator must therefore have either been set up by publishers or work on their behalf.
“Schedule 2 requires the Recognition Panel to consider effectiveness and fairness in determining whether a regulator meets recognition criteria. Such standards must by implication govern the recognition process. The criteria would not be satisfied if a regulator without any members, nor the support of those who it wishes to regulate, were to be recognised.
“There is a wider point to which this relates. If a regulator is recognised, it will claim that publishers are incentivised to join it because the legislation will provide costs and damages protection in some legal actions pursuant to provisions under the Crime and Courts Act 2013. Those provisions, however, not only incentivise, but are designed to punish publishers who do not choose to join an approved regulator once one exists, regardless of the effectiveness of the publishers’ own regime.
“We do not accept that the recognition of a body with no industry support should trigger punitive measures threatening freedom of speech.
“I trust that you will take into account the membership of any regulator seeking approval and ensure that the legitimacy of this process is maintained.”