Bill Wiggin is MP for North Herefordshire.
In 2013, MPs voted 530 to 13 in favour of implementing Sir Brian Leveson’s recommendations through the Crime and Courts Act. This decision came in the wake of the conclusion of Leveson Part I, an inquiry that confirmed widespread wrongdoing within the press, and resulted in criminal convictions.
An overwhelming majority of MPs, including the now Culture Secretary and the Prime Minister, voted in support of Sir Brian’s solution to regulating the misconduct of the press. This was to create a system for approving independent press regulators, as all previous self-regulation by the press had completely failed to stop wrongdoing and protect ordinary people.
This proposal was not state regulation of the press. A Royal Charter, as good as unamendable, created the Press Recognition Panel whose role was to approve prospective independent press regulators. The approval is subject to the 29 criteria as set out by Leveson and affirmed by Parliament in the 2013 vote. These criteria ensure any prospective regulator must be truly independent, beholden to neither politicians nor press barons, and provide guaranteed low-cost arbitration that gives ordinary people the power to have their voices heard.
Press regulation need not be overbearing, nor does it equate with giving the Government any control over what newspapers print. Some of my colleagues have spoken out against Section 40: they don’t believe in any press regulation as a matter of principle. However this argument was lost when the press created IPSO, recognising that funding their own self-regulation was more beneficial to their agenda than submitting to a truly independent one.
Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act was the tool by which Sir Brian Leveson intended to force reluctant press barons to join an approved independent regulator. This provides both carrot and stick to the press through low cost arbitration on both sides. Any publication which is not a member of an approved regulator is required to pay the costs of both sides in a potential court dispute, to ensure that individuals smeared and abused by newspapers have access to justice. On the other side, Section 40 protects newspapers from being liable to expensive complainant’s costs if they become a member. Smaller newspapers need no longer be scared of printing true stories about rich and powerful individuals due to the looming threat of costly court action.
By passing Section 40 it was intended to incentivise joining an approved independent regulator. However last week the Government announced its intention to repeal this Clause and officially cancel the second part of the Leveson Inquiry. The Secretary of State’s reasoning for scrapping Section 40, was that the self-regulator IPSO provided sufficient regulation and protection for the public. This is perplexing, considering we do not trust energy providers, broadcasters, exam providers, legal and financial services, and many more sectors to regulate themselves.
Self-regulation is absolutely not appropriate, even more so in a sector which has such a poor record of self-regulation. IPSO is funded by the press and have steadfastly refused to become an approved regulator and fulfil all 29 criteria. To give one example of non-compliance, the Culture Secretary recently stated that IPSO has put in place a low-cost arbitration system as recommended by Leveson, yet they have yet to arbitrate a single case because the newspaper has to voluntary agree to it and they are unlikely to ever do so in cases they may lose.
Defenders of the decision to abandon the victims of press abuse and scrap Section 40 point to the supposed unfair burden to newspaper with the costs of both parties in court cases, even if they lose. This is extremely simple to solve – the newspaper should simply join an approved regulator. One already exists, IMPRESS, and the press are perfectly at liberty to create another. What is truly unfair is that ordinary people who have been subject to mistreatment and abuse by the press have to risk their house and livelihoods in legal action because a newspaper refuses to follow the rules agreed by Leveson.
By scrapping Section 40, the Government are trying to abandon the press regulation they voted for in 2013. They do not acknowledge it as this, because they know that would mean abandoning the victims of press abuse who were promised justice and reform. It means there would be no obligation for low-cost arbitration to ensure ordinary people are protected, and no requirement of independence, meaning ‘regulators’ are funded by the very people they plan to regulate. This is what happens with IPSO, and this is exactly why they are not press regulators, but simply press protectors.
We can either have press regulation or not. This question was decided in 2013 by the Government. What is unacceptable at the moment is the press hiding behind the facade of IPSO, pretending it is an effective regulator when it only serves the interests of the Press itself. Section 40 is necessary to draw press barons away from self-regulation, and towards independent fair low cost arbitration working for all of our interests irrespective of personal wealth.