Regulation of the press

Supplementary written evidence submitted by D C Thomson & Co Ltd [ROP 005a]

Since my letter to you on Friday 31st May we have given some further thought to two very important issues.

The first relates to the means of implementing changes to Parliament's Royal Charter for the self-regulation of the press and the issue of statutory oversight.

If my understanding is correct most people on all sides of the debate (Parliamentarians, the newspaper industry and the lobby groups) agree that a significant element of flexibility is essential in the new self-regulation framework. This flexibility is essential precisely because any entirely new regime will throw up unforeseen and unintended consequences. The Regulator has to be in charge.

In this particular case, the unintended consequences are extremely sensitive, as they affect the underlying freedom of the press itself. The Leveson Inquiry made it clear that press freedom must remain undiluted by any structural changes to self-regulation in the new system.

However, in Parliament's Royal Charter the only means of implementing any changes to the self-regulator would be to revert to the legislature. In other words, the self-regulator would need to engage with Parliament, and generate a vote that must achieve 66% support for the change to the Royal Charter to be implemented. This hurdle is irrespective of how damaging to press freedom and the newspaper industry failure to implement the change might be.

So this is clearly unworkable, and for three reasons:

1. No system of 'self regulation' can be defined thus if it relies on Parliamentarians to secure even small changes to the Royal Charter on self-regulation.

2. At a practical level Parliamentarians cannot welcome having to vote for changes that while unpredictable in volume are nonetheless inevitable to some degree and it cannot be a good thing for Parliament to be seen to be overseeing the press.

3. Most importantly newspaper proprietors will be completely unable to sign up to the Parliamentary Royal Charter because they have no visibility of how it will operate in practice, and so have no means of assessing the risks and implications both for their businesses, and, more importantly, the underlying freedom of the press. Moving to statute as a result of these failings would be totally disproportionate and could cause a constitutional crisis. This would be particularly unfortunate when an alternative way forward makes complete sense as laid out in the Royal Charter put forward by the newspapers.

The second issue I wish to emphasize again is arbitration. We consider this a very serious risk to newspapers and to press freedom. While we consider there to be huge risks for all parts of the press I consider the risks to be disproportionately large for regional newspapers and magazines, parts of the publishing industry that were almost (I say, almost, since none of us are perfect) entirely exonerated during the Leveson Inquiry.

The fundamental issue is that many matters that are currently settled with an apology or are correctly dismissed on some grounds relating to the Code may under the Parliament Royal Charter go into arbitration with the newspaper picking up an arbitration bill whether the publisher wins or loses. Even when the case was lost it could cost £5k-£15k per case. Cases that were settled or were ruled out or where apology was made and where no one was going to go to an expensive civil and very public trial, now can move forward at the publisher's cost to arbitration. This seems guaranteed to substantially increase every newspaper's costs and be a big hindrance to settlement of many such matters.

This outcome is very problematic for most national newspapers, even though they are more frequently involved in the larger cases which Brian Leveson said arbitration was designed to deal with.

In the case of regional newspapers I fear the downside could vastly outweigh any possible benefits. We do not ever have huge libel cases or other civil cases. Some smaller newspapers on which communities depend probably do not even have a legal budget! But I am sure they will have a legal bill if this form of arbitration is introduced.

What was supposed to be elegantly designed to keep some few colossal libel bills in check (or the threat of such) for some national newspapers will in our view have large unintended consequences for newspapers, magazines and indeed other publication formats. Parliament surely must have overarching regard to how these proposals hit the small and weaker as well as the large. And it is the fear of such, that will cause this whole enterprise of regulation not to work. And Brian Leveson himself made clear that the regional press must not incur additional costs as a result of the new system of self-regulation, and therefore arbitration risks imposing an outcome, hugely at odds with the objectives highlighted in the Inquiry.

If I am right I genuinely believe the consequences for the regional press in particular could be severe.

With both these issues the solution lies in the framework described in the Royal Charter proposed by the newspaper industry and that has to be my strong recommendation. The Parliamentary one in current form is a straight jacket. In the case of arbitration it is critical that it is brought in slowly, to test it carefully; and, if necessary, to adapt and improve it. The regulator has to be almost completely free to do what it takes to get things to work reasonably.

It seems to me that the Royal Charter put forward by the newspaper industry has to be highly regarded by you and be looked at with fresh eyes. There are good and proper reasons for the proposals they have put forward. The newspapers in this country are by and large excellent. And they are run in the main by good honest people. That is not in any way to minimize mistakes when they occur. But journalists and editors and management do not set out in any way to damage. In the regional press they are part of the communities they serve. We simply do not do that. The code is rightly very highly regarded and Brian Leveson did not say anything bad about it. It is renowned.

Brian Leveson also mentions and emphasizes the overwhelming amount of good work that is done by newspapers and not just the regional papers. But from much of the debate and heat you would think he had never said that and all newspapers and magazines were to be regarded as criminals.

I urge you please not to see this as one Royal Charter being pitted against another. We have all had enough of that. I would request that my comments are accepted as being made in all

thoughtfulness and honesty. I have been publishing newspapers and magazines for 35 years and my concerns come from practical experience.

Let me make one additional perhaps practical point. Parliament currently has the press-the newspaper and magazine industry-exactly where it presumably wanted to find it. The industry has put its own Royal Charter on the table and within it the vast, vast majority of Leveson's recommendations have been incorporated. Parliament and the three parties have achieved something no one else has achieved: it has secured an industry agreement to a solution that Parliament (and indeed importantly some of those good people I refer to above) can use to hold the industry to account. It will be impossible for the industry to backtrack from here. Even the biggest critics of the newspaper industry can regard this as a very significant "win".

I don't like talking of wins though even if that is the case: and it may be important politically but the more important matter is for each and every publisher to ensure in their own way that new governance is put in place and the torrid history that brought about the Leveson Inquiry does not happen ever again.

Parliament may wish to look at this again many years down the line (and perhaps from time to time to chide and admonish) but what the newspapers have proposed which is in practice most of Leveson and which now has such industry support will ensure vigorous compliance with Leveson overall I believe.

Give us the tools and we will get the job done. Getting most of the Leveson report applied and getting the newspaper and magazine buy in to improvement in this way is the single most important matter and result and you have achieved it. The press will not wish to be up in front of parliament for a long time to come if ever.

The vast majority of us in the press are aghast that we have been dragged through the mire by illegal activities and by poor practices and governance. If you give us the tools to do the job by approving the Royal Charter proposed by the newspaper industry I know you will find that everyone will make that work and the proprietors, editors, journalists, all of us in the press, will make sure it is adhered to and indeed developed over time.

Thank you again for the opportunity to engage. I am of course available at your convenience if you wish to discuss in further detail.

June 2013

Prepared 19th June 2013