On Monday Sir Alan Moses, the former Appeals Court judge who chairs the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), publicly applauded the ‘implacable opposition ‘ of the British press to the controversial Section 40 of the 2013 Crime and Courts Act, which provides for aggravated penalties against publishers who fail to submit to the government’s own desired press regulation system.
But the head of Ipso pointedly told an audience of mainly journalists and editors that the press is ‘ill-advised’ to keep campaigning – as some newspapers have done fiercely – for the UK to get out of the Council of Europe, Europe’s main human rights organisation. Sir Alan said bluntly that the European Convention on Human Rights provides the best guarantees and safeguards for press freedom, and the Strasbourg court (the European Court of Human Rights) would protect those rights ‘better than any British courts’.
Section 40 is currently in abeyance, but the government recently held a public consultation to prepare for a decision on whether or not to implement it. The issue is a touchstone in the ongoing battle between champions of press freedom and rival campaign groups demanding stricter rules against excessive press intrusion and misbehaviour – including some cases of criminality – which gave rise to the 2011-12 Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press.
Sir Alan said the Section 40 provisions would lead to a ‘freezing out’ of bold, impudent, questioning and probing journalism, and that was ‘unacceptable’. He criticised what he called the government’s ‘weasily’ attempt to ‘whip’ national, regional and local newspapers into submitting to what he called a system of ‘state-approved regulation’ against their will. Strong words indeed.
He was speaking at a lively panel discussion at the Stationers’ Hall in London on the theme ‘Are Journalism and Press Freedom under threat?’, hosted by the London Press Club and the Society of Editors. Ipso now regulates the great majority of British newspapers, which have signed up voluntarily to its authority, which includes powers to impose heavy fines for breaches of the agreed Editors Code of Practice.
An officially-recognised regulator, Impress, has been shunned by all major UK titles, and regulates only some minor news publications. The Recommendations from the Leveson Inquiry foresaw that a new regulatory body should work by voluntary participation and include the bulk of the written press. Moses said that Impress does not meet either of those criteria.
Sir Alan insisted his role was not to campaign for the newspapers but to protect the regulation of the press from serious damage to freedom of expression. He declared that Section 40 represented an ‘unjust system’ because publications which had refused to submit to the authority of an ‘approved’ regulator would be liable to pay the costs of a court case even they won the case against a complainant.
A questioner challenged Sir Alan, suggesting that adequate safeguards could be provided by judges weeding out merely frivolous claims against newspapers before they went to court. Sir Alan Moses rejected that argument, saying that in practice Section 40 would introduce a risk of very high penalties to newspapers even if they should eventually win a defamation or privacy case. That element of uncertainty for editors and journalists would, he suggested, inhibit public interest reporting.
That view was backed up by Pia Sarma, editorial legal director of Times Newspapers. She said the chilling effect of English laws affecting the press had grown stronger since the Leveson Inquiry; already, lawyers for British newspapers often had to warn editors about the prohibitively high costs of losing a libel case in the British courts.
Roy Greenslade, the media commentator and former newspaper editor who chaired the event, voiced the opinion that in the harsh media climate post-Leveson the innocent parts of the British press had been made to pay for the sins of the guilty.
At this mainly journalistic gathering there was limited time to examine the enduring public concerns that parts of the press have have failed to learn the necessary lessons after shocking abuses of power by some newspapers were exposed. The picture of sustained bullying, law-breaking and cover-up by powerful media forces – sometimes in league with the police – that was described, for example, by Guardian journalist Nick Davies in his 2014 book ‘Hack Attack’ has still not been properly answered in the minds of many.
Still, this debate threw light on the reality about what press freedom really means. Sir Alan Moses said it in so many words: that uncompromising investigative journalism involves digging up mud as well as winning press awards for scoops. ‘Don’t throw them both out because of the mud’, was his pithy message.
Pia Sarma argued that investigative journalism would suffer more if Section 40 came into force; and the state’s expanded powers to monitor and intercept communications under the Investigatory Powers Act further constrained the public’s right to know.
Roy Greenslade pointed to yet another negative development for freedom of the press: the recent recommendations by the Law Commission for a new Espionage Act. The Commission is a body set up by parliament in the 1960s as an independent source of advice on reforming legislation. Its suggestions, unveiled on 2 February, include raising the maximum jail sentence for whistleblowers, journalists or public servants who leak – or even handle — government secrets. It also proposes extending the reach of the law to non-British nationals, which would include figures such as Edward Snowden.
The debate in the Stationers’ Hall (a venue closely associated with the newspaper and digital media industries) served to underline the worrying gap between the mindset of the British government, acting often in the name of national security, and the resolve of the UK’s news media to hold power to account in a difficult political and business environment.
Recent British government have consistently signalled a harder line, through the heavy-handed threats issued to the Guardian newspaper over its publication of stories based on the Snowden revelations, newly-enacted anti-terrorism and investigatory powers laws with expanded state powers, and the threats by government ministers to take the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as quitting the EU.
This outing by Sir Alan Moses in a roomful of journalists and some lawyers showed the journalists’ fraternity in London pretty much united on its side, too. Moses ended with a confident prediction: that most of the public would join the press in saying no to the new media-hostile proposals from the Law Commission. That’s one of many tests to come.