International Free Speech Groups Warn PRP Impress Recognition will be ‘Fillip’ to Repressive Regimes

International free speech groups have warned that the birth of the UK’s first state-sponsored regulator will be a fillip to repressive regimes where authorities strive to silence journalists through intimidation and excessive regulation.    

Press freedom bodies have welcomed the Government’s decision not to enact Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 but have warned that the recognition of Impress by the Press Recognition Panel will embolden repressive regimes.   

Elena Perotti, executive director public affairs and media policy, World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, said:  “WAN-IFRA represents some 18,000 publications producing news in 120 countries across the globe. Many of our members are forced to operate in extremely challenging conditions in which repressive regimes try to stifle free speech through excessive regulation and other methods.

“The news that the UK – supposedly a bastion of free speech – has gained its first state-sponsored regulator will be a fillip to these regimes. It will embolden them to impose yet more restrictions on news outlets and intimidate journalists they want to silence. This is bad for free speech and bad for democracy across the globe. 

“It is unsettling to note that the words spoken by our CEO Vincent Peyrègne in occasion of the unprecedented WAN-IFRA press freedom mission in Britain in January 2014 are still as valid : ‘(We are) deeply concerned by the British authorities’ treatment of the profession of journalism and its attempts to control the public debate.’

“Then, like today, it seems to us that the UK shall take steps to ensure it upholds the high standards of press freedom expected from a leading democracy, especially ‘given the UK’s continued influence over developing nations where media are essential for the spread of democratic values.’

“In spite of this, we are relieved  to learn that the UK Government intends to reconsider the implementation of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 which could enhance the risk of newspapers committing self censorship when faced with the risk of the high costs involved in lawsuits which have no legal merit.”

Wout van Wijk, executive director, News Media Europe, said: “We are deeply concerned by recent events in the UK which could ultimately result in a profound chill on free speech and media pluralism, two fundamental pillars of a democratic society.”

“Newspapers across Europe make valuable social, cultural and economic contributions to society and this should be recognised and celebrated rather than penalised with the threat of a state control of editorial content.” 

Giving evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committe on Monday, Culture Secretary Karen Bradley said that local newspaper editors had said to her that the commencement of Section 40 could put them out of business and dampen investigative journalism.  

She said: “I could do an ideological position on this but the implications of being ideological may be that we see a vibrant free local press being affected. 

“We have to consider that situation very carefully and consider how best to support a free and vibrant that particularly at local level we all value so much, whilst making sure that we have the appropriate regulation.

“It would not be fair to victims of press intrusion to take a position based on facts and situations from three years ago without reflecting on the position today to make sure we get the right regulation and the right protection.”

Following the news that the the PRP had granted Impress recognition on Tuesday, the NMA said it was disappointed with the PRP’s decision but welcomed the Government’s decision not to enact Section 40.

A wide range of free speech campaigners and other bodies have expressed concerns around Section 40 and the implications of the PRP recognising the UK’s first ever state-sponsored regulator.

Jodie Ginsberg, Index on Censorship chief exceutive said: “The Crime and Courts Act 2013, as it stands, is a danger to a free press. Under the act, a publisher can be ordered to pay both sides’ costs in a dispute if the publisher is not a member of an approved regulator.

“Index on Censorship has fought for free speech since 1972, and as publishers ourselves, we will not join a regulator that has to be approved by a body created by the state. This means we – and many other small publishers – could face crippling costs in any dispute, threatening investigative journalism or those who challenge the powerful or the wealthy.”

Philip Davies, MP for Shipley and a former member of the CMS Select Committee, said: “I’m with the newspapers on this, even though I’ve been in the spotlight myself a few times, because I think the proposals are excessive and unreasonable.

“If we go with the regime that people are asking for, basically newspapers will shy away from challenging anyone in authority because there could be fierce consequences. They would be effectively neutered. Rich bullies would be able to break newspapers for exposing their misdemeanours.

“All that would happen is rich people in authority would have impunity knowing that newspapers would not take them on. Local newspapers would end up relying on ‘motherhood and apple pie press releases’ for content. People need to be careful what they wish for.”

Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford said: “In terms of principle I agree with those who feel that a Government which forces publishers into a state-backed regulator with a gun to their heads is exercising state control of the press.”

Lord Lester said: “What [Max Mosley] is now doing in funding Impress, in my view, violates freedom of the press and freedom of speech and no newspaper, national or local, will sign up to the new regulator.”

Representing international news publishers and agencies, Andrew Moger, executive director, News Media Coalition, said: “The UK should regarded by the global media community as a beacon for press freedom and free speech but this is increasingly not the case. 

“News media outlets have a tough enough job exercising legitimate editorial, press and publishing freedoms without the additional threat of regulation by the state which no thinking publisher would ever contemplate signing up to.”

Warning of the dangers of enacting Section 40, media commentator Ray Snoddy said: “As publishers point out, apart from the emergency provisions of wartime, this would be the first time since the end of the Licensing Act in 1695 that the British state has attempted to dictate to the press.”

Peter Preston wrote: “But it’s difficult even now, as Sir Philip Green becomes plain Phil – at least at the hands of MPs shouting “billionaire spiv” – not to ponder what section 40 might mean in any notional case brought by Green against a non-Impress paper (from the Guardian and FT to the Mail). Plain Phil could lose big – but he’d still win the costs on both sides. A newspaper would lose hundreds of thousands of pounds in victory.

“No, the BBC and ITN aren’t affected here. Nor is BuzzFeed, the HuffPost or Vice. This is one post-Leveson legacy reserved for newspapering alone. And looking increasingly idiotic.”