Should the Press Recognition Panel (PRP) have chosen 23 August to hold its public meeting to consider Impressâs application for recognition as a royal charter-approved press regulator?
Last Friday, I noted the fact that the meeting had been announced. It didnât strike me at the time as unusual. After all, the process has been transparent enough.
But the Daily Mail regards the timing of this âmajor threat to the future of Britainâs free pressâ as an act of stealth because âmany people will be away on holiday.â
It quotes the director of the free speech campaign group 89up, Mike Harris, as saying: âThis smacks of the PRP preparing to bury bad news.â
Is it? At a personal level, I am peeved because I am one of those people who will be away and therefore cannot be there (and certainly would be otherwise). But plenty of people will be around and I canât really imagine that the PRP has set the date, annoying as it is, in order to avoid scrutiny.
That said, I would be surprised if the PRP rejects Impress, the alternative regulator to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso). Impress has been carefully crafted by its chief executive, Jonathan Heawood, and his board to secure recognition by attempting to meet the charterâs 29 recognition criteria.
There is a gulf of difference between the two organisations. Impress is currently regulating 33 small, independent news outlets while Ipso is regulating the overwhelming majority of the newspaper and magazine publishers of Britain.
Impress is still holding consultations about drawing up a code of standards while Ipso has been dealing with complaints under the editorsâ code of practice for 18 months.
So it could appear like something of a David versus Goliath clash. In fact, if Impress gets its charter recognition, then the Mail, in company with other Ipso publishers, fears that Davidâs very existence could be a potent threat to Goliath. The Mail explains why:
âIf Impress is recognised, it could trigger implementation of a draconian law under which newspapers may have to pay the legal costs of people who sue them – even if the newspaper wins its case.â
At risk is the current principle of âloser paysâ, in which the unsuccessful party in a libel action has to cover the legal costs of both sides.
Under the 2013 crime and courts act, that principle would not hold if the publisher facing a libel claim was not a member of an approved regulator.
Since Ipso has decided it will not seek recognition, all of its members therefore fear the consequences of Impress gaining official charter approval (as, incidentally do those publishers of titles, such as the Guardian, the Independent, and Financial Times, that have not signed up to either Ipso or Impress).
It is hard not to view the idea of publishers paying the costs of unsuccessful litigants as anything other than unjust. Inevitably, this whole matter is likely to end up with legal arguments, first in the Royal Courts of Justice and then in Strasbourg.
So the outcome of 23 August PRP meeting could be crucial. It could have far-reaching implications for publishers, editors and all journalists. It will take place at The Buckingham Room, De Vere West One, 9-10 Portland Place, London, beginning at 10am.
If you want to attend, you should email HPerry@pressrecognitionpanel.org.uk.