Index fears recognition of Impress could stifle investigative journalism and threaten press freedom

Index on Censorship welcomes the delay in the Royal Charter recognition of Impress by the Press Regulation Panel and hopes it provides an opportunity for further consultation. We are extremely concerned that recognition of Impress has the potential to introduce punitive measures for small publishers and to stifle investigative journalism. We are also concerned that about the transparency of its funding. These are factors that threaten freedom of the press.

We hope the decision today gives an opportunity for a rethink.

Index remains concerned that, aside from the Royal Charter, other elements of legislation introduced in the wake of the Leveson Report represent a threat to media freedom. One of the most worrying of these is Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which sets out that an organisation which does not join a recognised regulator but falls under its remit (through being considered a “relevant publisher”) will potentially become subject to exemplary damages should they end up in court, and could also be forced to pay the costs of their opponents.

Such measures could be especially punitive for small publishers and news organisations with limited financial means.

There are two principles here that threaten a free press. Firstly, that in effect joining a regulator becomes less than voluntary if you have the threat of punitive damages hanging over your head. Secondly, that those who do not join and therefore feel under threat of exemplary damages will skirt away from controversial subjects and investigative journalism, and opt instead for “safe” stories.

Such measures could be especially punitive for small publishers and news organisations with limited financial means. This has a damaging effect on free expression. Supporters of this aspect of the act argue that exemplary damages would only apply to “reckless” action by journalists, but it is possible that a court could find that a breach of Article 8 rights to privacy and reputation was by definition “reckless” even when a journalist was pursuing an investigative news story in the public interest.”

Impress said in January it would accept donations of £3.8 million to cover the first four years of expenditure, which have been reported as coming almost exclusively from The Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust. The organisation’s own website provides only scant information about its current funding.

Although Impress has said it would not “be beholden to anyone” and that a charity would act as “buffer” between any donor from which it receives funds, the idea that a single wealthy individual should control the purse strings for a supposedly independent regulator should strike fear into the hearts of those who believe in a free press.

Index, a small publisher since 1972, has not signed up to a regulator.

21 October 2016: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that section 42 (3) of the Crime and Courts Act sets out that an organisation under its remit could be subject to damages if it does not join a recognised regulator.