The Press Recognition Panel was painstakingly put together in a manner that will guarantee complete insulation from any conceivable political interference or pressure, writes professor Steven Barnett.
Anyone reading Ray Snoddy’s Newsline piece last week could be forgiven for concluding that the Press Recognition Panel, which celebrated its first anniversary last Tuesday, was a colossal waste of time and money.
They could also be forgiven for thinking that the new carefully constructed framework of press self-regulation, endorsed by Parliament after a historic cross-party agreement, was a huge threat to journalism in general and to small publishers in particular.
In fact, precisely the opposite is true. The Panel and accompanying statute will – if Parliament’s will is not trumped by the whim of a single minister – allow news publishers to take on rich and powerful individuals or corporations without being threatened by potentially terminal court costs.
The Saviles or Maxwells of this world would no longer be able to intimidate journalists into silence with the threat of bankruptcy via court proceedings.
Most importantly, given the parlous state of local newspapers, those small local publishers and online start-ups – which are just beginning to make vital contributions to watchdog journalism in their local communities – would be protected from local bigwigs attempting to muzzle them.
This is how it would work. In order to meet the Panel’s recognition criteria, a self-regulator must offer a system of low-cost arbitration. This service would then be available to any individual (or corporation) who believed they had a libel or privacy claim against a publisher.
If a litigious bully like Robert Maxwell insisted on bypassing the arbitration system and taking a small publisher to court – as they are perfectly entitled to do – the court will require them to pay their own costs even if they win.
Thus, for a small publisher, the risk of bankruptcy through huge court costs is removed. And protection for public interest investigative journalism is actually enhanced.
The beauty of this system is that it also protects ordinary people against abuse and intimidation by wealthy publishers. Individuals of limited means who have a reasonable privacy or defamation case against a newspaper can no longer be threatened with losing their homes if they seek redress.
Either they must be offered low-cost arbitration, if the publisher is part of a recognised self-regulator. Or, if the publisher has chosen to stay outside the recognition system and forces a claimant to court, it must bear both sides’ court costs even if it wins.
It is a very simple principle: access to justice for those who have never had the money or the power to challenge the big beasts of Fleet Street. Any yet this is the system which Ray Snoddy dismisses as “one of Leveson’s more preposterous and unjust ideas” without telling the whole story.
He displays similar contempt for the second incentive of the recognition system which was triggered by the Panel’s first anniversary: changes to the rules on exemplary damages, which he describes as “one of Leveson’s more dangerous concepts…”.
Again, Snoddy fails to give the full picture. When precisely can these “dangerous” exemplary damages be awarded? Only when a publisher has shown “a deliberate or reckless disregard of an outrageous nature for the claimant’s rights”.
Moreover, any damages must be proportionate and means-tested. Whatever the doom-mongers may claim, this is no serious handicap for those staying outside the recognition system.
Ray’s lack of sympathy for this moderate system of ensuring independent and effective self-regulation is particularly ironic given his own astute diagnosis of the problem over 20 years ago.
In his outstanding book, The Good, The Bad And The Unacceptable, published in 1993, Ray charted some of the shocking excesses of the British tabloids during the 1980s which led – in uncanny echoes of the last few years – to the then Conservative government setting up an independent inquiry into press standards under Sir David Calcutt.
Even then, Ray identified the problem both for targets of press abuse and for journalists trying to do their job. He wrote of the victims of press intrusion: “There can be few more devastating experiences for anyone, unknown or famous, than having their most intimate personal experiences turned into public property over millions of breakfast tables”.
As evidence to the Leveson Inquiry graphically demonstrated, nothing has changed.
And in terms of reporters subjected to editorial diktats with little concern for ethics or codes of conduct, he wrote: “Journalists on a paper have little choice but to follow the lead given by editors on what standards of accuracy are expected, how far stories should be pushed and what degree of ‘corner-cutting’ will be tolerated”.
Again, as revealed by the testimony of Sun journalists in their trials over the last few months, nothing has changed.
How, then, does one resolve this seemingly eternal conundrum of impotent victims of press mistreatment, vulnerable small publishers, and editorial codes which are routinely ignored?
Ray had part of the answer in 1993: “There is an urgent need for the creation of the libel equivalent of a small-claims court… For the average citizen there has to be a cheaper way of protecting reputation, and for newspapers a more sensible and cheaper way of finding out they were wrong, than in the past.”
That, in a nutshell, is the essence of the Leveson framework: not only protection for small publishers and ordinary people, but an assurance that a recognised self-regulator will have robust processes for implementing their codes of practice and therefore protecting journalists from intimidation by editors. This is the system which Ray wants to see dismantled.
Finally, Ray reports that Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has temporarily “backed down” on the court costs provision which lies at the heart of this carefully designed structure.
In fact, the Secretary of State said that he had not yet made up his mind and that the government “will continue to monitor IPSO”, the press regulator set up and run by the big newspaper groups in much the same way as the discredited Press Complaints Commission.
What an irony. The Press Recognition Panel was painstakingly put together according to stringent appointment rules which guarantee complete insulation from any conceivable political interference or pressure.
And yet the press which furiously denounces this patently independent body as “state interference” meekly stands and applauds when a cabinet minister announces that he is “monitoring” their own pseudo regulator – and will then decide on whether to exercise his executive power to impose rewards or penalties.
Once again, as they have done for decades, powerful publishers are practising the kind of double-standards they would condemn in others.
And again, Ray identified the problem back in 1993: “Newspapers which feel entitled to hold every institution in society accountable and to criticise incompetence and folly in the most vigorous and often personally wounding terms have very little taste for being held accountable themselves”.
It is a shame that Ray himself now apparently endorses those newspapers’ blatant hypocrisy, as well as their shameless sycophancy towards a minister of state.