Despite his hopes of crippling Britain’s newspapers, I can reveal that Max Mosley isn’t actually allergic to them. At least, he leafed through the Daily Telegraph yesterday in the reception of Sky’s Westminster studio without having to put on gloves or administer any protective lotion to his hands before doing so.
This small triumph aside, he didn’t have a very positive air about him. And no wonder: the last few days have seen his plans to corral the media into regulation by Impress, the body funded by his family trust, is on the verge of failure.
Impress has failed to persuade (or pressure) a single national newspaper to submit to its regulation. This is not very surprising, given it has close links to the anti-press campaigns of Hacked Off and people like Mosley, various of its leading cheerleaders openly loathe the free press and some of its own senior staff and advisers are on record saying some pretty unpleasant things about newspapers they dislike, including expressing the desire to “ban the Daily Mail“.
Not only has the organisation failed to, er, impress the national media, but it has had precious little success in signing up anybody else. Its painfully short list of regulated publications includes a bit of double-counting, a smattering of local newspapers and not much else. Given that there are thousands of print publications in the UK, that’s a striking vote of no confidence from the industry it wants to oversee.
Mosley and others had a final card up their sleeve for this circumstance, though – a stick to penalise publications that refused to become part of Impress. As ConservativeHome reported back in October, Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 creates the provision for publications that haven’t joined a “recognised regulator” (of which Impress is the only one) to be made to pay the costs of people who sue them even when the case fails. In other words, if you don’t join Impress then Section 40 could leave you liable to be financially penalised even for publishing true stories – a remarkable injustice, and a measure which would clearly be harmful to the operation of the press and the public interest.
Section 40’s introduction comes down to the decision of Karen Bradley, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Happily for press freedom, there has been a growing call for her to choose not to introduce it – indeed, for it to be repealed lest any future government be able to use the measure as a threat. Over the last week, a remarkable alliance has emerged on all sides of Fleet Street to express concern that Section 40 would threaten the exposure of future public interest stories such as the exposure of the Rotherham abuse scandal.
Every single national newspaper is now united in opposition to this bad law, with the FT and The Guardian – who normally keep their distance from other papers on the topic – adding their voices today. The latter’s decision is particularly notable: The Guardian was the chief Fleet Street ally of Hacked Off and others over the phone hacking scandal, but even it believes “Impress has distinctly unimpressed”, that “the independence of the press is best served by self- not state- regulation” and that “there is no other option but to repeal section 40.” It’s a humiliating blow for Mosley and his fellow anti-press campaigners. Local newspapers – already pressed financially without this added threat – have also expressed their opposition.
Yesterday, two political events took place that are relevant to the future of this battle. MPs voted against the idea of dragging the saga on with Leveson Part Two, and the Government’s consultation on whether to introduce Section 40 ended. Campaigners for a free press believe that they have the advantage of numbers in the consultation after a surge of support from the public, but as a consultation is not a referendum they must now hope that the weight of evidence, good sense and the opinion of the overwhelming majority of journalists and publications will carry the day.
ConservativeHome shares that hope, as the freedom of the press is a pillar of a free society which benefits everyone (not just those of us who write news for a living). Bradley should do the right thing and sink Section 40 for good. If she does, Mosley’s outfit will be forced to justify its existence rather than coast into authority by virtue of wielding a big stick. It will no doubt be found fatally wanting.