Impress a state-backed regulator because it is cue for law which punishes publishers who won't 'bend the knee'

milton

Those of us who support unfettered free speech and freedom of the press should accept chief executive Jonathan Heawood’s right to put the case for Impress “in a free and open encounter”.

For those same reasons, we should not want a state-backed body such as Impress to have anything to do with regulating press freedom.

Heawood’s attempt to recruit John Milton as a sponsor of Impress alongside Max Mosley gives a new meaning to “poetic licence”. Milton’s 1644 classic Areopagitica was an appeal to parliament “for the liberty of unlicensed printing”, published during the English Revolution. The system of Crown licensing of the press did not finally end until 1695.

Now we are faced with the first system of state-backed press regulation in more than 320 years, with Impress recognised as the official regulator under the suitably Medieval-sounding instrument of a Royal Charter. It seems unlikely Milton would be singing its praises.

No, no, insists Heawood in his Press Gazette article, this does not make Impress a state regulator, “any more than a car which passes its MOT is a state automobile”.

But the difference is that nobody needs to pass an official test to qualify for freedom of speech. Nobody needs a licence to have the right to publish and be damned. Nor do we need a state-backed regulator like Impress sucking through its teeth and telling the press: ‘That’ll cost you, mate!’

And cost us it will. No doubt it was only lack of space which prevented Heawood mentioning the most important way in which Impress is a state-backed regulator: the looming legal threat of punishment which hangs over publications that refuse to bend the knee to being overseen by Royal Charter – so far, everybody except a few websites.

As any fule surely kno, the recognition of Impress is the cue for Section 40 of the 2013 Crime and Courts Act to kick in. In addition to the threat of the courts imposing exemplary damages, Section 40 requires judges to make publishers who don’t sign up to Impress pay the costs of people who sue them, even if they win the case.

That would apply not only to newspapers such as The Sun, but to the likes of Private Eye and Spiked, the online magazine of which I am editor-at-large. The likely result would be to give Britain’s notorious libel laws an even more chilling effect on press freedom.

As the Eye observed: “The only person able to block this draconian measure would be culture secretary Karen Bradley, and there is as yet no evidence that such a person actually exists”.

The purpose of these post-Leveson legal threats is to tame the unruly, dirt-digging British press and try to sanitise its output to suit the tastes of the tabloid-bashing lobby.

Complaining about press support for Brexit, Brian Cathcart of Hacked Off demands that the government “deliver the sticks and carrots needed to make the system work” and “initiate the process of protecting the British public from press abuse”.

The “sticks and carrots” in question are the Section 40 powers.

As I said at the time of the Leveson Report, if such legal threats are a “carrot” for the press, it is one shaped like a baseball bat with a six-inch nail banged through the end.

Neither Impress nor anybody else in the press regulation debate is “independent”, floating angelically on a cloud above the fray below.

All have agendas to pursue and axes to grind.

That certainly includes the judges whom Heawood wants us to trust with our most precious liberties. Their new enthusiasm for imposing injunctions to dictate which news is fit for us to read or hear suggests that the judiciary has as little regard for freedom of the press as it does for the democratic will of 17.4 million Leave voters.

The answer to all of these contentious issues, as always, must lie with allowing more freedom of expression rather than less.

 

The principle at stake is press freedom. Many of us might have little time for IPSO.

But accepting Impress as the state-backed regulator by Royal Charter amounts to acknowledging the fox as official warden of the hen house, by appointment to the Crown.

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