Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen, and John – thank you for your kind introduction. I am delighted to be with you today at this important conference. As I will spell out a little later, there is a clear and present danger to press freedom in our country and it is vital that all of those institutions which represent our industry continue to fight our corner with vigour and confidence. The Scottish Newspaper Society is a hugely important part of that industry infrastructure, and I pay tribute to your tireless work.
For my part, in recent years it has been a huge pleasure to work with Jim Raeburn, Tim Blott and with you, John, during some very difficult times. I have always greatly appreciated the strong support of the SNS and I am enormously grateful. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank those such as Donald Martin and Damian Bates who continue to play their full part in the work of the Press Complaints Commission in its final days. The PCC is an essential public service and it is crucial that it continues to fulfil that function until midnight the day before our new regulator starts, and the work that Donald, Damian and others do to keep it going it is extremely important.
The last three years – since the phone hacking scandal exploded in the summer of 2011 – have been the most turbulent in the history of the British press. A police investigation, unprecedented in size and duration, has led to a series of high profile trials now underway at the central criminal court, and dozens of journalists – many arrested in dawn raids – remain on bail. A near two year judicial inquiry, with powers greater than those given to the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War which left 100,000 dead, produced a report calling for statutory control of the press for the first time since 1695. A Royal Charter, dodgily created and pushed through without due process, seeks to put Parliament in charge of newspaper regulation. These are difficult and dangerous days.
Despite its reputation for cut-throat competitiveness and what is sometimes perceived by outsiders as a failure to provide a united front, the newspaper industry throughout the United Kingdom has shown an iron resolve during this period to oppose state involvement in editorial content and to protect self regulation, which is ultimately the only guarantor of press freedom.
We’ve done that in two ways, and I’d like today to update you on both of them. The first has been to put in place a new self regulatory mechanism to replace the Press Complaints Commission. And the second has been to challenge the basis on which the politicians’ Royal Charter, which introduces an unacceptable degree of state interference in a free press, was drawn up.
First, let me tell you where we are with the establishment of the Independent Press Standards Organisation, or IPSO. There will be many in this room – and I am one of them – who maintain a great deal of respect for the PCC and what it achieved in its near quarter of a century of operation. I believe history will cast it in a good light, not least for the way it performed its central role of providing a quick, effective system of complaints resolution. That is what it was designed to do, and it did it – still does do it – extremely well. It is something we must capture in IPSO.
But the deluge of 2011 was too much for the existing system to bear, as it lost the confidence of public and politicians. That is why we needed to move to put in place a wholly new regulatory structure to deal with the three main weaknesses of the PCC – its lack of legal powers, its inability to undertake investigation into serious ethical breakdowns in standards and then apply sanctions, and its perceived lack of independence from the industry.
IPSO addresses all those areas, which were central to many of the recommendations in the Leveson Report. It will be a wholly new organisation – not son or daughter of PCC, or even a remote relative, but a completely new beast in the media regulatory jungle. That is a message I think we need to make sure we keep ramming home – along with three central points about the new organisation.
First, unlike with the PCC, the industry no longer has any control over appointments – either lay or industry ones. The Chair and Board of IPSO are being appointed by an independent Appointments Commission headed by Sir Hayden Phillips, a distinguished former civil servant and about as robustly independent as you can get. There will be lay majorities on the Board of the new regulator, and on its complaints committee, and there will be no serving editors on those bodies. Editors will continue to play an important part in the system through the Code of Practice Committee, but even here there will be lay people sitting on the Committee for the first time, appointed later this year by the Board.
John and I had hoped that the name of the new Chair would be announced by Sir Hayden just in time for this Conference, so that you could find out a little more about him or her. But the best laid plans never do quite work out – and so there are no puffs of white smoke today. However, I am told that an appointment will be made shortly.
The Chair will then join the Appointments Panel to appoint his or her new colleagues on the Board – including one representative of the Scottish press. It is hoped that this process will be completed within a few weeks so that the new Board can then set about selecting IPSO’s complaints committee, again including one Scottish representative, in time to launch IPSO early in June.
These genuinely independent appointments processes will I believe ensure IPSO has a first class membership – with strong lay members to represent the public and a diverse and experienced set of individuals with industry backgrounds in the newspaper and magazine sector, who will be vital to ensuring the system work.
The second point of fundamental difference between the PCC and IPSO it that it is rooted in contracts between publishers and the regulator, giving it a firm basis in civil law. Although many were rightly nervous that we could achieve a high level of publishers signing these long-term contracts, we should all be proud of the fact that there has been an exceptionally high level of sign-up within the industry – well over 90%. Only one publisher – the FT which sells very few copies of its newspaper in the UK – has said that it intends to go its own way, although not having anything to do with the Royal Charter process or any rival regulator. That degree of sign-up is a great achievement and will give IPSO an extremely broad basis of support on which to operate.
And the final key point of difference is the question of powers and sanctions. Here the contract gives IPSO the powers to undertake investigations where there is evidence of a serious or system breakdown in ethical standards and if a publisher is found to be in breach IPSO will have the power to apply sanctions, including levying fines of up to £1 million.
That is a dramatic change for press regulation in the UK. We will from now have a powerful, independent regulator – but crucially it will still be a system of self regulation, without interference from Parliaments and politicians and reliance on hard-pressed taxpayers.
Without wanting to enter into other matters that are on the mind of people here in Scotland, I think it is worth emphasising that IPSO will deliver a unitary system of press regulation throughout the UK – something the Government’s Royal Charter option, as I shall outline later, never could do. Indeed the Charter fragments the UK into many different pieces for the purposes of media regulation, something which is wholly impractical and undesirable when today’s media does not respect any form of arbitrary boundary. I think that is an important point given that Scotland’s great papers are national papers, read widely in England as well as here in Scotland, with website accessible the world of over.
Mr Chairman, delivering such a change has been a mammoth task, and one that could not have been accomplished without the wholehearted support of the industry and its institutions. The contract itself, and the regulations that accompany it, were over a year in the making and the result of constant discussion and reflection across every part of the industry. The SNS in particular fought hard to ensure the special place of Scotland within the new system. Meetings that I had with the SNS editors’ committee – along with representations from your lawyers taking part in the Industry Implementation Group chaired by Paul Vickers – brought about some important changes within the IPSO articles to deal with real concerns you expressed. That long, painstaking and sometimes painful process means we will have a much stronger regulator – one that both protects the public, and understands the vital role of the press in protecting the wider public interest – as a result. All the work you have put it will ensure IPSO is, in my view, the scourge of bad journalism but the friend of the good and great journalism that is the hallmark of 95% of the press.
The real progress we have made with IPSO is one part of the story, because we also have to deal with the menace that is the Government’s Royal Charter on press regulation.
As you will all know, the industry always made clear to the UK Government that it was prepared to talk about ways to achieve the idea of some form of scrutiny for our new regulator that was foreshadowed – albeit sketchily and obviously without much thought – in the Leveson Report. And talk we did for many months before a Royal Charter was imposed on us late one night at a meeting accompanied by pizza and Mars bars in the office of the leader of the opposition with no one from our industry present.
That Charter – a version of which was sealed in October after the UK Government belatedly remembered that it needed to consult the Scottish Parliament, something it had forgotten to do – presents an unacceptable infringement of press freedom and freedom of expression. Accompanied by so-called “incentives” in the form of exemplary damages for newspapers and magazines outside of a “recognised” regulator – something you won’t have to worry about here in Scotland – it is in effect the embryo of a state licensing system for the press, which we last saw enacted in Britain in 1662, and which is now regarded across most of the free world as inimical to the idea of free speech.
And I say that because what has happened is that politicians for the first time in three centuries have laid out how they expect regulation of the press to be organised, and have the tools now to make that compulsory if they choose. That involvement in the granular detail of content regulation – and most importantly in how the Code is crafted and adopted – could easily take them to the heart of the news room and what you can or cannot publish. That for me is an incredibly chilling, authoritarian prospect, hiding behind the facade of an arcane constitutional document signed by HM The Queen. If ever there was a wolf in sheep’s clothing – this one with a Crown on – it is this.
It was in order to avoid Parliament exercising control over content regulation – yet still trying to find a way to provide a level of independent scrutiny of regulation that Leveson apparently wanted – that the industry submitted its own Royal Charter last April.
That Charter would have delivered on Leveson but without the unacceptable interference of the state. And it would also have dealt sensibly with the issue of compulsory arbitration, something that I know was of real concern in Scotland where it would in any case have been unlawful. As you know that document was rejected in October after a sham process of consultation which in the view of those involved did not begin to live up to the demands of public law for fair process. That is why we launched a judicial review of the way our Charter was rejected.
We always knew that a Court battle over the Charter would be complex and potentially long drawn-out. I don’t think any of us, however, expected that at the first hearing our case would be thrown out by two judges who considered the evidence for just fifteen minutes before delivering a verdict which took half an hour to read out. (I’ll leave you to do the maths on that one). Nor that at the second round, we would be refused leave to appeal in a judicial edict that covered just eight lines of type-script. There is no finer sight than the establishment closing ranks!
Next week, on Wednesday, the issue reaches the Court of Appeal where we will have a chance again to make our case. And it is a case that must be heard because is absolutely fundamental to what a free society is all about.
This Charter introduces the state’s power into editorial content regulation, something which attacks the very foundation of press freedom.
It is being done on the basis of a document that was cobbled together in a matter of hours late at night.
A document that was never scrutinised in Parliament because the Prime Minister said to debate its terms would be to “cross the Rubicon” and never voted on by MPs and Peers.
A document which alone among all 950 Royal Charters has been imposed on an industry which does not accept it and was not consulted on it.
A document which is supported by so-called “incentives” which are almost certainly contrary to European law and will fail.
A document which does not even apply in all parts of our country since it was rejected by the Northern Ireland Executive.
A document which was subject to no public consultation or proper Privy Council procedure.
In short a document which makes the infamous dodgy dossier look like a magnificent item of state-craft.
It is for all those reasons that we as an industry should not just have nothing to do with it – but to fight it with vigour and determination. On that you have my own personal commitment.
Indeed, on that point I want to say something about my own role in the future of the system. I have been involved in the PCC and PressBof for the best part of 18 years – with only a short break for good behaviour when I went back to politics for eighteen months in 2004-5. I have concluded that it is time for a change for one central reason – namely that the threats to our freedoms, from both a UK Government perspective but also from the EU, are now so severe, and the political environment so deeply hostile, that I need to concentrate on tackling them, along with other colleagues throughout the industry. I shall continue to support the work of IPSO and defend the principles of self regulation from within the NPA – including continuing to oversee our legal challenge to the Royal Charter – but I will not any longer play any part in the structure of the regulatory system once IPSO, to which I did not apply, is established and formal responsibility for funding passes to the Regulatory Funding Company in late May. I will not therefore hold any position within the RFC, which Paul Vickers is now putting together and which I hope, in view of his huge experience within the industry and his phenomenal work chairing the Industry Implementation Group, he will lead.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I hope this update has been useful. We have come a long way since the bleak days of 2011 when our industry – deeply unfairly in my view – was under attack from every quarter. We have a new system of independent self regulation ready to go, and in the coming days the final bits of the jigsaw puzzle will be filled in. And we remain firm in our resolve to see off those who want to subject the press to statutory, Parliamentary control. That we have been able to do so is because of the commitment of the industry, of publishers, editors and reporters, both to maintaining the highest professional standards of journalism, and to maintaining the freedom of the press. To prove that freedom and responsibility can, and must, go hand in hand. On which point, let me end where I began by thanking you all for everything you have done, and continue to do in achieving these great and important goals.