Don’t Press the nuclear button of state regulation

I’ve spent most of my life trying to explain the difference between regional and (most) national journalism.

When your profession is permanently in the relegation zone of Britain’s most trusted groups of people, you have to.

I used to play badminton with a chief probation officer who regularly greeted me as ‘the vulture of the press.’ It was amusing the first couple of times. Not so much the 200th.

I sum it up like this. I spent two decades as a journalist in Bath, a city of 100,000 people that’s really a giant village.

If I strolled into the city centre, there was a pretty good chance I’d bump into someone I’d written about over the years. And it was my proud belief that I could look them in the eye and defend every word.

That’s an accountability which most tabloid journalists don’t have. And I’m sorry for them.

That sort of relationship, that place in a community, is what makes regional journalism so precious, and so important.

The contrast was clear at a meeting hosted by the press regulator Ipso in Birmingham last month.

On the panel was the boss of that city’s biggest news website, Birmingham Mail editor Marc Reeves.

Also there was a chap from the pressure group Hacked Off. Understandably, he raised the case of one of Ipso’s highest-profile rulings: the one on the Sun’s claims that the Queen backed Brexit.

o-sun-queen-backs-brexit-570

He pointed to the comment by Sun editor Tony Gallagher that he would do it all again tomorrow as evidence that Ipso – the regulator set up by the media industry – was a toothless waste of time.

Later in the meeting, Marc put another view: he confessed that he was ‘terrified’ of Ipso.

You might think, well he would say that, wouldn’t he?

But I believe him. And I believe him when he says that the editor’s code enforced by Ipso is at the heart of virtually daily conversations about how to tackle stories in his newsroom.

And it’s not just him.

That code was my bible, too.

And when Ipso strikes, it is humiliatingly and mortifyingly painful.

Talk to the Derby Telegraph about the ruling that savaged its use of a picture of a girl being treated at an accident scene .

Ask the Lincolnshire Echo about being at the wrong end of a far-reaching, landmark ruling over naming dead people.

You wouldn’t catch the editors of those papers going on the radio to say they’d do it all again.

Instead, the shock wave of an adverse Ipso ruling involves retraining, extra checks, new policies – and hairshirt wearing.

That code is respected, checked and pored over by thousands of regional journalists.

No one has any serious quibble with it, including organisations that choose not to be regulated by Ipso.

The new kid in town regulator Impress – funded by a trust linked to Max Mosley and representing just a few dozen titles, mostly hyperlocals – wants to be Britain’s official press watchdog.

impress

But the organisation which puts its case to the spookily-named Press Recognition Panel on Tuesday has come up with a code which it could be argued is weaker than Ipso’s.

The PRP, which has already spent more than £1m of public money doing nothing, was set up in the wake of the Leveson Report.

Titles that are part of the warp and weft of their communities face the prospect of being punished for the sins of others

The behaviour laid bare at the Leveson Inquiry amounted to journalism’s darkest hour. But that behaviour had nothing to do with the regional media.

And yet, now, titles that are part of the warp and weft of their communities face the prospect of being punished for the sins of others.

If – and it’s a big if, bearing in mind that funding, and the fact that Ipso represents 30 times as many titles – Impress is approved by the PRP on Tuesday, we are at the top of a very slippery slope.

The next stage is the Government’s delayed decision over the Crime and Courts Act, which if implemented would mean titles not part of the Impress regime having to pay the legal costs of complainants who sued them and lost.

A situation even more unprecedented that having government-sponsored regulation of the nation’s press for the first time since the 17th century.

Ipso isn’t perfect.

I agree with its charismatic chairman Sir Alan Moses that finding a way to regulate offensive opinions is incredibly difficult, and I know this is the sort of thing that keeps him awake at night.

His organisation’s view is that Katie Hopkins calling refugees locusts and the odious Kelvin Mackenzie attacking Fatima Manji for wearing a habib while reporting a terrorist attack represent the price we pay for freedom of speech.

ipso-ruling

And it’s a view supported by media guru Roy Greenslade .

I’m not so sure. I’d like to see Ipso taking a stand against the sort of hate journalism that spreads prejudice, ignorance and poison, and which is currently being played out over the alleged age of refugees.

 

Having said that, Ipso is in there, sleeves rolled up, tackling this sort of circle-squaring moral minefield, now. And it’s interpreting a code of conduct that I believe is above reproach. Plus, it’s just been given a largely clean bill of health by an external review.

It is operating the toughest regulation regime – with the ordering of page one corrections and the power to fine – that this country’s media has seen in centuries.

I’d like to see more people complain, and I’d like to see some of the nationals treat it with more respect, and to stop bringing the case against state-sponsored regulation into disrepute through hyperbole.

But that slippery slope is a real one.

And I can’t see that democracy and community life are going to be served by imposing a white elephant regulation system in place of one that works for the news media that I care about.

A new kind of regulation might seem like a breath of fresh air.

But it actually risks suffocating a real force for good in hundreds of communities around the country.

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