There was a distinct sense of unreality at Glasgow Caledonian University this week when a dozen or so assorted media types assembled to hear about the new Press Recognition Panel, now embarking on its consultation tour before an expected autumn launch.
Unreal because this is an organisation from which no-one is as yet seeking recognition and the one embryonic organisation which might has no customers.
Established under the UK Coalition Government’s Royal Charter shenanigans to implement the Leveson recommendations, the PRP is supposed to make sure a Press regulator meets the requirements laid down by politicians in the Charter, rules which can be changed by Parliament with a two-thirds majority.
The incentive to join a regulator with state approval is exemption from punitive damages and costs in defamation cases brought in England and Wales, something which Scottish Courts are prevented from awarding. There is also a strong chance that when applied to the principles of freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial such a system will be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
So not only was this week’s discussion about an organisation with as yet nothing to regulate, it’s future is built on a principle which has no foundation in Scots law. And as there were no publishers of any note in attendance, it’s hard to see from where the customers are going to come.
Affable chair David Wolfe claimed lots of small publishers could benefit from a system which protected them from the excessive costs of defending defamation actions, but in a Scottish context such a regulator would provide security from a threat which doesn’t even exist in theory. Neither is it likely someone trying to pursue a small publisher with no digital audience in the South would be able to sue in an English court.
A barrister by profession, Wolfe was at pains to point out that larger Scottish publishers with substantial online audiences in England could be pursued in English courts, but then again the new Defamation Act sets a new bar of “serious harm” which exposure to a handful of ex-pats in Corby and Camden is unlikely to constitute.
It is, of course, all theoretical, which is why this week’s audience was almost entirely made up of media academics, like Glasgow University’s Raymond Boyle and former BBC solicitor Alistair Bonnington, plus some civil servants.
With IPSO already moving away from the framework established by the newspaper industry, and causing a great deal of discomfort in doing so, there is every possibility that nearly all of the 23 charter criteria laid down by the PRP are met by IPSO.
This is especially so with IPSO’s pilot arbitration scheme about to enter consultation with the aim of being operational by autumn. The misgivings within the industry are considerable, especially local publishers who fear they will be exposed to spurious claims, but IPSO has taken on temporary staff to drive through the project so some sort of new system now looks inevitable.
And so David Wolfe admitted to over-summarising this week when claiming wrongly that only PRP-approved regulators would have an arbitration system.
As IPSO follows the direction laid down by chairman Sir Alan Moses, the differences between it and a Government charter-backed system will come down to appointments, finance, and the potential for political interference. The latter will always keep IPSO out of the official scheme and the former will be of diminishing importance as the IPSO appointments panel develops. That leaves finance and there is no clamour for anyone to fund press regulation other than the industry, which is what’s happening.
What the rival Impress will not lack is vocal supporters like Hacked Off or, thanks to JK Rowling and the Joseph Rowntree Trust, money. All it will lack is clients the public had heard of.
So what is the point? Wolfe believes the bar set by his group contributes to IPSO’s development, and if in the long run that helps ensure politicians are kept out of the system then perhaps it will have performed a valuable function.