As journalists, we pride ourselves at being good at knowing what people want to read, and good at getting them to read the things we feel they need to read.
However, getting people to show an interest in the processes of journalism, and the things which could damage the ability of journalists to keep the public in the know, is another story entirely.
But if you like your local newspaper, or at the very least appreciate the fact that there’s a local newsroom covering the things which matter to your community, then I implore you to read on.
Because local journalism is facing perhaps it’s gravest threat.
It’s not caused by the internet. It’s not caused by the change in advertising habits. It’s not caused by the decline in newspaper sales. All of those the industry can – and has to – work with. The killer blow is called Section 40.
Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which was passed by Parliament in 2013, but never enacted by the Government. To most, it’s an obscure piece of legislation but the effect would be chilling.
Section 40 would mean that any publisher who is not regulated by the Press Regulator endorsed by Royal Charter (ie effectively picked by government every few years to regulate the Press) would, should someone begin privacy or libel action against them, have to pick up both their costs and the claimant’s costs regardless of whether the publisher won the legal case or not.
The prospect of a libel case is already a chilling one for newsrooms everywhere. Even if local newsrooms weren’t packed with journalists for whom fairly reflecting and reporting what is going on locally is the number one priority, the prospect of having to defend a libel action which couldn’t ultimately be defended is enough to ensure thorough fact-checking before pressing publish on a story.
Ensuring people who legitimately feel they have been wronged by a newspaper can access redress without being priced out by lawyer fees is, of course, very important, but passing the entire cost on to publishers (unless they sign up for the Government’s choice of regulator) would have far-reaching effects.
Ambulance chasing for the media
It would create a huge no-win-no-fee compensation culture at a time when the news industry is being battered financially in many ways. For all the talk of trust in journalism being at an all time low, the numbers of people reading local news is at a generational high.
Take a look through your local newspaper or local news website and you’ll soon see news and features which editors would have little choice but to stop doing. Anyone who felt their reputation was damaged as a result of newspaper coverage would have nothing to lose from ringing a local solicitor and beginning action, regardless of whether they had any case that would stand up in law or not.
The punt would be that newspapers would seek to settle rather than incur the costs of going to court in challenged financial times. Investigations which expose wrongdoing would be top of the ‘stop’ list. Police appeals which involve CCTV images of people being sought in connection with crimes could easily be deemed too risky to publish. What if the person in the CCTV sued?
Strong columnists would soon be muted. Football writers could be encourage to tone down criticism for fear of a club turning to the law. Restaurant reviews could be a thing of the past unless you were prepared to say you were delighted to have plumped for the chicken.
It’s entirely possible that all the things we have ‘privilege’ to cover – the stuff which we in theory have legal protection to report on – could be up for challenge. What if the council leader didn’t like the way his speech had been reported? Or the criminal defendant who felt he’d been damaged by things said in court and reported on? You don’t have to spend long working on a newsdesk to get calls from people fuming that their court case has been covered – imagine if there was a solicitor on tap to take a risk-free punt on a bit of a payout.
Section 40 has the ability to be the next PPI cash cow for the legal profession. Take a punt, you might be quids in. Only the financial sector has the resource to withstand the billions being taken our by the PPI industry, the regional Press doesn’t.
Like PPI, Section 40 and the state-backed Press regulator are the end product of a tiny part of the profession behaving very, very badly. And no-one who cares about journalism would deny that. Those who say Section 40 and a state-backed Press regulator are a good thing by citing the errors of a few aren’t just throwing the baby out with the bath water, they’re ensuring no baby will go near the bath again.
Supporters of Section 40 – organisations like Hacked Off, and, unsurprisingly, IMPRESS, the ‘official’ Press regulator – claim that the Press have nothing to fear of either, if only they fall in line.
So why not join IMPRESS? That’s the obvious question anyone who hears a journalist talking about this will ask. There are several reasons.
The first is the membership of IMPRESS brings any member one step closer to being regulated by Government. That is not a good thing. As anyone who has seen the wrangles the BBC has with government at Charter renewal time will testify, such a state-sanctioning brings with it the chance for politicians to settle scores and make life hard. Would you like the idea of Britain’s Donald Trump getting elected and being able to bring pressure to bear on the Press? It might sound far fetched, but who remembers the way the Labour government hounded down the BBC ahead of the Iraq War? And who would argue that history would suggest the BBC was in the right?
The second is cost. Libel costs under Section 40 would be crippling, but in joining IMPRESS they would be swapped for the cost of arbitration. According to IMPRESS, if someone seeks arbitration under their scheme, the cost of arbitration would be up to £3,500, funded entirely by the publisher (unless the publisher agrees to pay more). If the arbitrator finds against the publisher, it could award costs of up to £3,000.
A minimum £3,500 spend may not sound like a lot, but it would be enough for many editors to simply spike a story they felt could lead to arbitration. Some will point to the profits made of big publishers, but we’re an industry where any additional cost hurts. Arbitration costs set out this way put an additional price tag on local, accountable journalism at a time it needs it the least.
The third objection is the positioning of IMPRESS itself. Funded, as observed by Press Gazette recently, largely through support from Max Moseley, IMPRESS has failed to convince one of the most important groups of people it needs on board the most: Journalists.
The Press Complaints Commission was far from perfect, but anyone who says it wasn’t taken seriously by journalists simply has no comprehension of how local newsrooms work. A complaint upheld by the PCC was a big deal, and that equally applies to IPSO, the independent press regulator funded by the industry.
IMPRESS, in my opinion, has demeaned and belittled journalism in its quest to force others to make life so difficult for the Press that they have no choice but to sign up. In doing so, it has alienated the vast majority of journalist for whom facts are everything, and getting something wrong is something they try to avoid at all costs.
Only recently, it published the results of a YouGov survey which concluded that just 36% of people trust local journalists to tell the truth. As mentioned before, that doesn’t chime with the huge increase in people choosing to get their information from local newsrooms. And as the link to YouGov’s trust tracker over time shows, trust is going down all over the place.
IMPRESS seeks to set itself out as the the body which can restore trust in the media. It offers a kitemark to publishers who sign up to show they are committed to trusted journalism. Kitemarks don’t prove that to the people who matter most – the week in, week out interaction with those people – local readers – proves that to those people.
IMPRESS also claimed that 73% of people who most trust a regulator which was independent of government and publishers. IMPRESS says that it is such a body. It, however, is endorsed by Royal Charter, so connected to the Establishment, and has a link to the Government of the day. From the survey findings, it appears they didn’t ask what people would think of regulator without a guaranteed funding source, and currently reliant almost solely on the funding of one man’s charitable foundation.
And that is IMPRESS’s biggest problem. To ever be taken seriously by journalists, it needs to be seen as fair in judging when journalists are accused of getting something wrong. Few journalists would feel that way about IMPRESS at the moment, and their interpretation of these survey results will only reinforce that belief.
So that’s why publishers large and small are not signing up to IMPRESS and instead choosing to fight Section 40, the piece of legislation which has the ability to kill off local journalism as we know it. Given those fighting hardest to invoke Section 40 and support IMPRESS claim to be the ones fighting for a free press, it should be lost on no-one that their campaign will, in all likelihood if successful, have the opposite effect.
The fact they can’t see that shows how little they know about the regional and local press which is read by more people than at any point in the last 30 years – the true data which shows the role the local Press has in the lives of the people who matter most: The readers who hold us to account every day.