Rival press regulator will 'throw a spanner in the works' for industry if it gains Royal Charter recognition, says Impress founder Jonathan Heawood

Founder of would-be press regulator Impress, Jonathan Heawood, has said the new system will “throw a spanner in the works” for press industry-backed regulator Ipso – if it can find the finance to compete.

Alternative: Impress is due to launch in December

Speaking to The Drum, Heawood said that while funding from author JK Rowling – who doubled a £20,000 Indiegogo fundraising appeal in May – had been a great boost, he had been so far reluctant to go down the road of involving big celebrity names and those who had been direct victims of press intrusion in a bid to move away from the ‘us versus them’ culture.

“We probably could have much bigger revenue streams if we tried to fund it through the backing of big names who can financially support an alternative to the Ipso press regulator,” he said.

“But we want this to be seen as a genuine, neutral middle ground with the single aim of implementing the recommendations made in the Leveson Report.”

Heawood, a former director of English PEN – an organisation which defends freedom of expression for writers – began the Impress Project last year, which will give way to the Impress regulator after its planned December launch, to counter a growing national narrative that the UK government’s Royal Charter legislation amounted to “state censorship”.

The appointment panel for the Impress regulator – which will in turn appoint the Impress board of directors – will be announced next week. Last month, director of the Ethical Journalism Network Aidan White was appointed chair of the appointment panel.

In addition, Impress will launch a pilot arbitration service this autumn in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators.

According to Heawood, a number of as yet unnamed smaller publishers have agreed to get on board with Impress, and he hopes that in the long term national titles will come round to the benefit of joining a regulator that will “opt out” at any indication of the state trying to alter its powers over the press.

“I was really pleased when Leveson Report,” he said. “I thought he’d found the middle way. I genuinely thought he’d done a good job.

“The key recommendations could have been distilled a lot more clearly, but actually they are at heart really simple. You do have what’s effectively still a self-regulator in that it’s set up by or on behalf of the industry, but it’s not a law unto itself, it’s recognised by an independent body which is set up indirectly under statute.

“All that statute does is give that body life and a certain status, which means that if that independent body looked at the regulator and questioned whether it’s independent and doing a good job and was happy that it was, the incentives for membership in that they’re recognised by the courts.

“At heart that’s actually not that complicated, it’s quite simple, it doesn’t give any political scope for interference on one side, but nor does it allow newspaper owners to dictate terms, as they have been able to in the past.”

So far, all national newspaper titles have opted to join Ipso apart from the Guardian, the Independent and the Financial Times. The FT announced April that it would take regulation in-house, while the Guardian and Independent remain undecided. Heawood told The Drum that Impress has held talks with both titles.

If the launch of the arbitration service and regulator prove successful, Impress could become the first regulator to gain recognition under the government’s Royal Charter legislation, something Ipso – which has staunchly opposed what it claims is state interference in the press – refuses to do.

“If impress puts itself forward for recognition, that really is going to put a spanner in the works for Ipso, there’s no denying it,” Heawood said. “It would mean you have one regulator which offers its members all these legal protections, and one which exposes its members to lots of legal risks, and there are some publishers – especially those that have shareholders – that are going to find that very unacceptable.”

“You have to think about the whole thing in quite a long term, so let’s say there’s a five-year cycle that we’re going into now; Ipso launches, Impress launches, to begin with Ipso’s regulating the bigger players, Impress is regulating those much smaller independent players, and maybe a few titles are still missing altogether.”

Heawood added that the debate around press regulation risked ignoring the challenges that will emerge from digital publishing and the convergence of print, online and broadcast/video media moving forward, and said the Impress Project would evolve with a wider picture in mind.

The UK’s major news publishers have been locked in a bitter battle with the government since the creation of the Royal Charter proposal to regulate the press following the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics.

The newspaper industry, in the main, has insisted the government’s involvement in the process of improving regulation of the press will lead to state control of the press.

The Ipso press regulator, which will replace the criticised PCC, is due to launch in September.

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