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What the press regulation deal means for magazines

By Mark Burr

March 21, 2013 | 5 min read

Mark Burr, head of public affairs at the Professional Publishers Association (PPA), explains why he has concerns for the magazine industry over the Royal Charter on press regulation

On Monday, the message coming loud and clear from Westminster was one of resolution. After months of wrangling on all sides, a deal had been struck in Ed Miliband’s office in the early hours that brought cross-party consensus to the thorny issue of press regulation.

The headlines of the past few days, however, paint a very different picture. Resolution has given way to debate, discord and, in some cases, confrontation as the ramifications of the deal are slowly beginning to become clear. For the magazine publishing sector, represented in the Leveson talks by the Professional Publishers Association (PPA), major question marks hang over the Royal Charter proposals.

As a member of PressBOF, the body that funds the existing PCC, the PPA is committed to self-regulation and has worked alongside colleagues in the newspaper sector in formulating the industry’s response to the Leveson Report. However, we have fought the industry’s corner in an attempt to avoid ‘one-size-fits-all’ regulation that indiscriminately covers everyone - from specialist business media brands serving niche audiences through to News International’s stable of national newspapers.

Indeed, there are 7,000 consumer and business magazines published in the UK, and last year they were responsible for only four per cent of the total complaints to the PCC. And of that four per cent, not a single complaint was made about a business-to-business title.

Then there are the difficulties associated with the issue of "the press". Once a useful descriptor for the print media and the elements on its periphery, this is now an increasingly archaic term, as consumer magazine and business information brands forge a multi-platform future, driven in large part by expansion on digital channels.

Labour’s original plan would have ignored the nuances within today’s publishing landscape and lumped all titles in the UK into a system of statutory regulation: an unworkable situation that would subject everything published in the UK to state regulation.

With the Royal Charter proposal, the Government has introduced yet more complexity. On the one hand, it ensures major news providers are defined as a relevant publisher (and need to be part of the system so they do not get hit by Exemplary Damages) but on the other, any titles associated with a hobby, pastime, trade, industry, business or profession do not need to be regulated. Scientific and academic journals are also excluded, as are titles that only have incidental news content. This is something the PPA lobbied for and we hope these exemptions will protect large parts of the magazine sector from unnecessary regulation.

For those publishers that do have to be part of the system, however, the PPA has major concerns over the application of the process of arbitration. Publishers subscribing to the system open themselves up to a deluge of low-level complaints that now can get a small pay-off through a free-to-use system, rather than the old process of reconciliation and apology and clarification. We have already heard from one PPA member who, less than 24 hours after the law was passed, was contacted by a complainant who put in a grievance six weeks ago and who now wants to use the arbitration system (even though it does not even yet exist) because they could get some money out of it. This is a worrying and chilling harbinger of what may yet lie ahead if we are not vigilant and robust in our response to this proposed new system.

Whereas the old system was all about being part of self-regulation for the greater well-being of the industry, membership of the "New PCC" is now a simple financial decision – be inside if you need to be and take your chances with arbitration. Or, as the Spectator and Private Eye have already announced, decide that it is not for you and take a chance outside the system with Exemplary Damages.

Concern over areas such as this means that, alongside our newspaper brethren, we feel that resolution on this issue is a little way off just yet.

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