Impress board member David Leigh: 'I am against Max Mosley’s attempt to put cat back in the bag... but press must tell whole story'

Press reform campaigner Max Mosley has issued a claim against the Times, Sun, Daily Mail and Mirror newspapers to stop publishing references to a story reported in the News of the World in 2008 about his involvement in an orgy, and claims that he directly funds alternative press regulator Impress. Mosley has said repeating the ‘inaccurate’ claims breaches the Data Protection Act. The Sun referred to the legal bid as a “gag” while the Daily Mail said it was a “chilling attack on press freedom”. Mosley has written in Press Gazette in response. Below, Impress board member David Leigh also responds…

The thing about stories – as any journalist knows – is that it depends how you tell them.

Some newspapers tell a very good story about press freedom. They say that they protect it, whilst regulators, politicians and celebrities threaten it. They cast anyone who disagrees with them as a rogue or villain.

The truth is more complicated. Big newspapers are gatekeepers. They control the information that flows through their pages. They decide which stories get told and how they get told.

Recent revelations in Open Democracy have suggested that some newspapers are strongly influenced by their commercial interests – to appease advertisers, for example, by running positive coverage and ignoring bad news.

This is hardly surprising, though it is disappointing. Newspapers are businesses, and they have to square press freedom with paying the bills.

It is also unsurprising that, like the dominant players in most industries, big newspapers do not want to be regulated.

They see regulation as an infringement on their freedom (whilst blithely calling for other media companies like the BBC, Google and Facebook to be firmly regulated). They submit to it grudgingly, and protest about regulatory decisions that go against them.

These newspapers do not like Impress. We do things differently.

We are set up so as to be independent of all outside interests – press, politicians and funders. Our code requires publishers to be transparent about any conflicts of interest.

Rather than engage with the substance of what Impress does or why it does it, these newspapers choose to tell a particular story about Max Mosley and Impress.

They rehearse Mosley’s past – his father’s very public politics and his own private sexual activity – and link this to Mosley’s support for Impress. They suggest, by association, that Impress is a regulator that will protect the interests of fascists or “press-haters”.

They ignore every bit of evidence that points in the other direction:

  • the distinguished journalists such as Sir Harry Evans who support Impress
  • the NUJ’s backing for the Leveson framework
  • the strong public interest exemption in the Impress Standards Code
  • the way the Impress arbitration scheme can reduce legal risks (and insurance costs) for publishers
  • the growing number of publications (88 at the last count) that have signed up to be regulated by Impress.

For my own part, I have spent my career fighting censorship. I am against Max Mosley’s attempt to put the cat back in the bag. But that doesn’t stop me serving on the board of Impress.

These facts may not suit the story that these newspapers want to tell, but they are part of the story and any journalist worth their salt should be able to explain them.

They should be able to explain why, in this digital age, more and more news publishers are voluntarily signing up to be regulated by Impress.

Journalism plays a vital role in society. It puts information into the public domain. It represents the interests of all sorts of groups.

And it holds the powerful to account – sometimes by revealing things that they would prefer to keep secret, sometimes by joining the dots between facts that are already in the public domain and sometimes simply by keeping up the pressure – as they have, for example, with ongoing coverage of the Oxfam sex scandal.

In the digital age, anyone can play the journalism game.

Over the last few years, the public sphere has been flooded with content that looks like journalism but is not.

At first, we thought that this was just bloggers with an axe to grind. Then we thought it was Macedonian teenagers on the make. Now we know that some of this pseudo-journalism – ‘fake’ or ‘junk’ news – is actually produced by foreign governments, deliberately sewing hatred and confusion.

Trust in journalism is collapsing at the same rate as traditional business models.

Some news publishers seem not to grasp the connection between these phenomena, but others see the scale of the crisis and they agree that independent regulation forms part of the solution.

These publishers understand that, as a society, we need to be able to distinguish between content that meets the standards of journalism and content that does not.

They understand that, as a society, we need to encourage publishers to put out journalism in the public interest, rather than clickbait.

These publishers are working in all corners of the UK to fill the gaps left by the corporate press. They include community publications, investigative non-profits and hyperpartisan political sites.

Some are noisier than others, but they are all trying to meet the proper standards of journalism and they are prepared to be held accountable by an independent regulator.

They are already contributing to our funding through their membership fees. Most of these publishers are small, and cannot afford the full cost of independent and effective regulation.

That’s where the Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust – of which Max Mosley is a trustee – comes in, by subsidising the cost of regulating these innovative news publishers, through the charity that funds Impress.

If and when the larger newspapers choose to sign up, they too will help to cover our costs. In the meantime, they are quite free to do what they do best – tell stories.

If only they would tell the whole story.

David Leigh is Anthony Sampson professor in reporting at City University, London, and a board member of Impress. He will host a speech by Impress chairman Walter Merricks on the role of regulation in the age of digital media at City University on Monday 19 February at 6.30pm.

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