John Whittingdale: 'Sharks are circling' on press regulation, 'parliamentary arithmetic' against repeal of Section 40

Former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has warned that it is unlikely the current government will be able to fulfill its manifesto promise to repeal Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act in the “immediate future”.

And he warned that the May government’s lack of a Parliamentary majority means that the “sharks are again circling” and the issue of tougher press regulation could again come to the fore.

He was delivering the annual lecture organised by press regulator the Independent Press Standard Organisation and he warned that the body has not helped itself to inspire confidence with the public and Parliament by failing to use its powers to fine and investigate in the two years it has been in operation.

A government consultation on whether to enforce or repeal Section 40, and on whether to hold part two of the Leveson Inquiry into the hacking scandal, closed in January and a recommendation has yet to be made.

Section 40 would have the effect of forcing newspaper and magazine publishers to sign up to a press regulator which is compliant with the Royal Charter by making them pay both sides’ legal costs in libel and privacy actions win or lose if they fail to do so.

If the measure is passed IPSO could well be forced to apply for official recognition under the Royal Charter and, crucially, provide a libel and privacy disputes arbitration service which is free for claimants.

Whittingdale said that Labour MP Tom Watson’s recent statement on the 21st Century Fox bid to buy Sky showed that he “continued his vendetta against the Murdoch family by recounting all sins, some real, some imagined; he called for Leveson 2 to go ahead, and he stated that the Labour party will review ownership rules, with a view to banning, essentially, foreign ownership of our press.”

Whittingdale added: “Now, had the general election gone as planned, he might still have made that statement, but it wouldn’t have mattered so much. Now, we’re in a different world.

“We have a government without a majority in parliament, and that obviously makes the government much less able to be sure of carrying through its legislation, and actually makes it vulnerable to defeat. So even though the Conservative manifesto pledge still holds, I suspect that the ‘Crime and Courts Act s.40 Repeal Bill’ won’t be seen for, certainly, the immediate future.”

He said he suspects that the House of Lords may again try to force Section 40 through by tagging it on to other legislation, as happened before the general election.

“I suspect this is an issue that will come back to the fore once again. And it means that the industry will need to make the arguments again.”

Whittingdale said of IPSO: “The public find it difficult to believe that in the over two years since IPSO has been in existence, no newspaper has done anything that merits independent investigation, or the imposition of a fine.

“And therefore, I think that that is something that you need to reflect upon…because we are going into a political period when it is all the more important that IPSO does persuade Parliamentarians that it represents the kind of tough, independent regulator which all of us accepted was necessary after the Leveson Inquiry.”

He said that the failure of The Independent, Guardian and Financial Times to sign up to an independent press regulator because “they all consider themselves to be so respectable that they don’t need to” undermines confidence in the system.

And in a comment aimed at Evening Standard editor George Osborne he said: “I only make the observation that of course one of the papers that is still outside IPSO or indeed any independent regulator is edited by somebody who was a leading member of the government that established the system in the first place, and that is something which I hope he might reflect upon as well.”

He said: “Given the new parliamentary arithmetic and landscape… I think the sharks are beginning to circle again.”

Whittingdale said that the “digital revolution” poses an “even greater existential threat” to the news industry.

Given the “cacophony of competition” from “news aggregators, the user generated content, blogs, fake news” he said “I think it is all the more important that stories that we read in quality titles are professionally investigated by trained journalists; properly sourced; fact-checked; and that they are legalled.

“But the problem is that too often those steps are not always occurring. Newsrooms are shrinking, and too often the economics are resulting in the quality deteriorating, and some of those procedures being cut out altogether. And that, I have to say, is happening even more immediately and dramatically in the local press.”

He added: “Too often now the local paper is located in an industrial estate or a location miles away; it employs a handful of recent graduates or even trainees; and the editor is a regional editor who oversees maybe 20 titles. And the photographers probably number one, or number two if you’re lucky.”

Much of the “core content which people relied upon the local press for” such as reports of council meetings and court proceedings “no longer appears”.

Talking about Google, he said: “It is never healthy to have an organisation with that degree of dominance.

“I think that there are serious regulatory issues and that was a point that I made in response to the statement by the Secretary of State last week that when you are worrying about the abuse or the undue dominance of media owners, printed press is not where you should be looking, it is online.

“That is where these giants of Facebook, Google, Amazon: they are the ones that are now raising very serious challenges to the competition authorities.”

He concluded: “The priority is that newspapers, or at least news organisation survive. Because you are frankly too important to the country and our democracy, to fail.”

Read John Whittingdale’s lecture in full.

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