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Press Recognition Panel chairman reasserts body's independence in letter to Government after move under Ministry of Justice purview

The chairman of the Press Recognition Panel, which rules on whether press regulators meet Royal Charter criteria, has written to the Government to reassert the body’s independence after finding out it had been brought under the purview of the Ministry of Justice.

The decision to designate the PRP as “within the MoJ departmental boundary” from 1 April 2018 was set out in the Ministry of Justice Annual Report and Accounts for 2017/18, published on 5 July, but PRP chairman David Wolfe appears to have only learnt about it last month.

In a letter to HM Treasury permanent secretary Sir Tom Scholar, dated 20 December and published online, Wolfe (pictured) said the move had been brought to his attention by the National Audit Office.

He said the Royal Charter on the Self-Regulation of the Press, which established the PRP in 2014 following recommendations made by the Leveson Inquiry, had been “carefully designed to ensure that the PRP remained separate from Government or any government department”.

He went on: “Whilst we note the decision of HM Treasury, it is the board’s view that the PRP should not be included in any departmental boundary not least because to do so risks giving the false impression that there is some ongoing relationship between the PRP and the department.

“The Charter ensures that there is no implication of governmental control or influence. Independence and transparency are fundamental to the way in which we operate.

“The PRP is entirely independent of the Government, Parliament, the press or any other such interest.”

He added in a statement to Press Gazette: “We have not been included in any ‘departmental boundary’ previously and it is unclear why we have now been.”

Press Gazette understands the decision to move the PRP under the MoJ was taken by the Treasury, which gave the PRP £3m in starter funding, and appears to have largely been an arbitrary one.

The MoJ essentially acts as a conduit for money from the Treasury that is paid to the PRP. The MoJ was chosen over the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport due to the risk of policy makers’ influence.

An HM Treasury spokesperson said: “We have received this letter and will respond in due course.”

Since it was established, the PRP has only recognised one UK press regulator: Impress, which has about 100 independent and hyperlocal titles under its remit.

The majority of UK newspapers and magazines are members of watchdog the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which has said it will not apply for recognition under the Royal Charter.

The PRP faced opposition from newspaper publishers over its support for the Section 40 amendment to the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which would force all publishers not signed up to a recognised regulator to pay all the costs of court cases, win or lose.

Although it remains on the statute books, Section 40 has yet to be enacted and the Government has promised to abolish it – although it has yet to do so. Press Gazette reported last month that Wolfe has said that, as far as he’s concerned, it’s “business as usual” on Section 40.

The MoJ report showed that the PRP’s total expenditure for the year to the end of March 2017 was £700,000 and it had net assets of £1.2m. Impress pays the PRP £220,000 in annual fees.

Impress revealed recently that it was looking to split in two to be able to offer “pro bono” legal advice to members.

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