The free press in the UK is “doomed” if it allows itself to be “corralled” by the Government into a state-backed press regulator.
This was the warning from Independent Press Standards Organisation chairman Sir Alan Moses speaking at the Society of Editors dinner in Carlisle.
It came amid fears that the Government will commence Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 which would impose tough financial penalties on publishers who refuse to sign up to a press regulator which has the approval of the Government-funded Press Recognition Panel.
Rival press regulator Impress is set to find out this month whether it has approval from the PRP. This could be the trigger for the Government to commence Section 40.
The Government has delayed a decision on whether to commence Section 40 pending the conclusion of phone-hacking criminal cases. The last such case will conclude when the Court of Appeal publishes its decision on the case of The Sun’s Anthony France.
In a separate move, the House of Lords last week added a version of Section 40 to the Investigatory Powers Bill (but only applying to phone-hacking cases).
Section 40 would mean that all publishers not part of a PRP-approved regulator would pay both sides’ costs in libel and privacy cases – even if they win them.
Moses said: “It is here and in other regional centres that the significance of what we are in danger of losing is so and most apparent. A vibrant local and regional press which bears the true mark of what makes it viable and precious is its independence.
“It’s that independence which your public, your readers, most value and it is they and all of us who have most to lose and who will suffer without a press free from control both nationally and regionally.
“And what, as a regulator, I see more and more clearly is what we risk losing in the London-based wittering and burble from those who wish to pursue their aim of establishing that very thing which represent the greatest risk to that precious independence – and that is control.”
Talking about Section 40, which was intended by Parliament as a ‘stick’ to persuade publishers to adopt the Royal Charter-backed press regulation model, he said: “You should be wary, very wary, very wary indeed of anything that looks like an attempt too corral you into submission.
“Government, the powers that be, want to goad you, prod you like sheep into doing what they want.
“The real and underlying danger of Section 40 of the Courts Act, designed to make you pay up even if you’ve proved that someone is a liar in court, lies not in the purpose which it proclaims – that your regulator should be recognised by and paid for by the state – but a far more fundamental and underlying current.
“That it is intended to herd you, force you into something you don’t want to do. The essence of our press is that it cannot and should not be forced into doing anything it does not choose to do. If it acts under compulsion then it is, I suggest, indeed doomed.”
The vast majority of national and regional newspaper and magazine publishers in the UK have opted to be regulated by IPSO – which has said it will not seek official approval from the PRP (so would not protect its members from extra courts costs under Section 40). The FT, Independent, Guardian and Evening Standard are currently unregulated.
Moses said: “The essence of successful regulation I believe is that it is voluntary. It’s something that you choose to do, not something into which you are driven.
“There’s a curious paradox about you all and about the press. However good you are at communicating, however fearless you sometimes show yourselves to be, you’re not so good at communicating about yourselves.
“At telling the world, at telling your public, at telling your readers what life without you would be like.
“A world of unedited, unskilled, unjournalistic piss and wind.”
The Daily Telegraph today warmed to Moses’ theme and said in a leader column: “… there are indications that the Government may be about to bow to pressure to proceed with Section 40. Ministers need to ask what damage this would inflict…
“Sir Alan heads a regulator that has shown itself to be tough, independent and which commands confidence among all but the most blinkered anti-Press campaigners. Ministers should let it get on with the job – and bin Section 40 for good.”