Should we be impressed by IMPRESS? Four years after the Leveson Report into press standards, a new regulator has finally won formal recognition by the independent body established to do the recognising. But there is some derision from Fleet Street for a body which is, after all, funded by sex scandal ex-motorsport boss Max Mosley.
Most newspapers and magazines around the UK have thrown in their lot with a different body, IPSO, while others including The Guardian and Financial Times continue with their own arrangements. Those publishers aren’t happy with running anything past a recognition panel, and would prefer their own forms of self-regulation.
In a past life I set up Saddleworth News, now at nearly seven years old one of the country’s best-established hyperlocal news sites. Even though I’ve long since moved away, I keep an interest in the site and the sector more generally. This is relevant because of the 50 or so publishers currently associated with IMPRESS (either being regulated by them, or having applied to be), most are hyperlocal.
The original idea was that being part of an approved regulator would offer publishers a carrot: quick and easy resolution of libel disputes, settled cheaply before anything got to court. Along with this, a stick: if you don’t join up, you’ll have to pay the costs, even if you win. This latter sanction is included in section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, but has yet to be invoked because of the lack of a formally validated regulator. Now IMPRESS has been recognised, the prospect of section 40 has risen back up the political agenda. Although a story in Tuesday’s Times hinted that the government may now back down.
So, confusion for a bit longer. But it’s hyperlocal publishers who have much to lose here. The News Media Association, which represents the newspaper and magazine industry, has claimed that the hyperlocals who have thrown in their lot with IMPRESS have done so unnecessarily, because they don’t meet the government’s own definition of ‘relevant publisher’ which includes a requirement of at least 10 members of staff. But those criteria also feature being subject to editorial control, publishing news content, engaging in commercial activity and having different authors – all of which apply to, say, Saddleworth News, the sort of organisation which could theoretically be wiped out by a vexatious litigant angry at coverage of a contentious local matter. Having the institutional support of an official regulator could offer welcome and much-needed back-up.
As the-then Culture Secretary Maria Miller put it in the Commons in 2013: “Those exempted by virtue of the fact that they are a micro-business can choose to gain the benefits of the costs clauses by joining the regulator, providing an incentive for them to join if they so wish and a choice to small organisations, perhaps before they grow in size and inevitably become a relevant publisher.” For all its faults, IMPRESS is probably even more appealing for a hyperlocal now than it was then.
There’s more on this from Matt Abbott over at C4CJ.