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The Press Recognition Panel (PRP), established by Parliament following the Leveson report published in November 2012, has approved IMPRESS’s application for recognition under the Royal Charter. Meeting on Tuesday in west London |(opposite the BBC) the Panel considered line by line whether the press regulator met the criteria set out in the Charter. After nearly five hours of consideration, witnessed by dozens of members of the public (including myself for the morning session) and transmitted live on the Internet, the panel decided that it did.

The decision makes IMPRESS the only press regulator which is Leveson compliant and one which the public, readers and victims of press abuse can trust to regulate newspapers and safeguard freedom of the press, while offering redress when they get things wrong. It had been hoped that the decision would be made at the Panel meeting in August, but a letter from the News Media Association, described in the current issue of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom’s magazine Free Press; “…as a front organisation for the national newspapers” raised further questions on the IMPRESS application. The same article pointed out that: “The national papers hate IMPRESS [most are quite happy with IPSO of which more later] and seek to derail the process at every stage, which is all too easy.” So a further round of consultation was undertaken, and the outcome carefully and thoroughly analysed by the Panel at its meeting on Tuesday.

The Board had every reason to be fastidious. They were obliged to do so under Leveson procedures and the threat of legal action by some national newspaper publishers loomed in the background as a possible challenge to the legality of any decision. That’s because the significance of the decision means that newspapers who do not sign up to the regulator could face paying out considerable amounts of money in court cases, by being liable to pay costs for both sides. As Private Eye (28 October – 10 November edition) puts it; “..Section 40 of the (Crime and Courts) Act 2013 will kick in, requiring judges to make news publishers who don’t belong to IMPRESS…pay the costs of people who sue them regardless of whether they win or lose”. However, it’s not clear if the government will implement this provision following heavy lobbying by sections of the industry, so this will be the next campaign target for those supporting the Leveson provisions for an effective, independent press regulator. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is still considering the matter, Karen Bradey, the Culture Secretary told a hearing of the Commons select committee the day before IMPRESS was given recognition.

Meanwhile while some newspaper publishers are muttering about a legal challenge to these provisions as being contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights (a piece of legislation they hate and want to see repealed) and want to stick with the unrecognised press regulator IPSO (the Independent Press Standards Organisation ) which is not Leveson compliant and has no intention of applying for recognition under the Royal Charter (for the simple reason it would be rejected by the PRP). Quoted in the Mail Online 25 October, Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said the decision was “irrelevant” to the reality of press regulation, adding that the vast majority of the press and significant publishers reject the Royal Charter system under which the PRP was set up. He added: “This is an organisation set up by politicians with public funds but it has no real work to do because Impress represents only a very small number of local publishers.”

So a significant step has been taken to clean up press regulation in the wake of the ‘phone hacking scandal, and subsequent Leveson report, but there are many hurdles ahead. Apart from getting the government to implement section 40, IMPRESS itself needs to sign up more members, a task it can now do with more confidence.

As investigative journalist Nick Davies, (who did so much to expose the hacking scandal) said in a statement issued by the media reform pressure group Hacked Off following Tuesday’s decision: “No decent journalist wants their work regulated by IPSO – an organisation which is vulnerable to the influence of some very bad people from the worst newspapers in the UK. Impress is a decent alternative, independent of government and of newspapers.

“It tells you all you need to know about the continuing scandal of press misbehaviour in the UK that these notorious newspapers will not join a regulator which can be trusted to enforce the code of conduct which they themselves have written and claim to want to honour; and that in spite of overwhelming public and parliamentary support, government is too scared of those newspapers to trigger Section 40, which would put pressure on those newspapers to join such a regulator.”

Well put Nick and he should know!