It is a quirk of fate that Impress, the media regulator established by royal charter after the Leveson inquiry, has its offices in the very same building as the News Media Association (NMA), the powerful press industry body that tried to have it crushed in its infancy.
Each morning staff from the two organisations can find themselves rubbing shoulders as they arrive for work in London’s Blackfriars, close to Fleet Street, spiritual home to the national news outlets that the NMA represents. Most of those big publishers are signed up to the industry’s Independent Press Standards Organisation (created by the big news outlets and outside the charter). They do not recognise Impress’s authority.
But Impress is thriving. Six years after it was first imagined by its chief executive Jonathan Heawood, it now represents 131 independent publishers, from ground-breaking investigative sites such as Bellingcat and The Ferret, to academic news publisher The Conversation. It oversees specialist outlets such as the vegan-focused Plant Based News, and hyper-local news services including London’s Brixton Bugle and Portsmouth’s Star & Crescent.
Its plan is to broaden its remit to become a standard-bearer for the independent publishing sector in high-level regulatory discussions on the future of UK media, and to widen its membership base to include content publishers from beyond journalism, such as charities and think tanks.
None of this would be possible if the NMA had succeeded in a legal challenge that claimed Impress should never have been given approval by the state-backed Press Recognition Panel, which gave the new regulator a green light in October 2016. The NMA’s case noted Impress’s dependency on funding from charities related to the former motorsports chief Max Mosley who, as a fervent campaigner for tougher laws on privacy, is despised by sections of the national press.
The High Court rejected the NMA’s argument, brought by Lord Pannick QC. A planned appeal last year was later dropped. “We got our costs paid, so a not insignificant part of our budget last year was paid by the NMA which we are very grateful for,” Heawood tells The Drum.
While the case threatened Impress’s existence, he also sees its value. “It was an opportunity for us to have stuff heard in court; all the allegations and insinuations about Impress got put to the test, all the talk about Max Mosley and about why Impress existed, about what we do and how we do it. Britain’s top barrister pursued those arguments and when you had two senior judges looking at them you realised how thin those arguments were,” he says. “It was a feeling of vindication that we have got it right.”
Free from being pursued by the big publishers, Impress has been able to pursue its ambitions in working with grassroots outlets. “We want to play a much more active role supporting the sector, not just regulating it,” says Heawood.
The initial 30 blogging operations and hyperlocal sites that signed up to Impress in the wake of recognition in 2016 has grown significantly and Heawood believes there are “hundreds” of outlets now contributing to this alternative media sector.
But Impress is planning a “strategic development” beyond journalism that should help to extend its role and influence. “In the ever-changing media economy that we are in these days there are a lot of people putting out information into the public domain and facing legal and regulatory risks as a result. That might include people like NGOs and think tanks, charities, influencers, a whole range of sectors that we are now starting to explore.
“They are not journalists but they face some of the same challenges that news publishers face in terms of establishing credibility and trustworthiness and dealing with legal threats. Those are things that we are particularly well-equipped to help them deal with.”
However quickly Impress expands its membership base it will remain dependent on its financial donors for at least the short-term. The publishers – which typically have annual revenues of less than £2m - pay the regulator a fee of 0.1% of earnings, starting at £50 a year. “You can do the maths and work out that it doesn’t add up to a huge proportion of our annual budget,” says Heawood.
Mosley’s family charities still have a vital role. Heawood says that “we tend to deal with the lawyers” from the Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust but that relations with the former Formula 1 boss are “formal but warm” and a new three-year funding deal was recently negotiated so that “we are financially sound through to 2022”.
Heawood is looking for more funding from other philanthropic foundations.
Impress has only seven staff. The Canary, the left-wing political news site that joined Impress in August 2017, was its most complained about outlet in 2017-2018, with 58 complaints. A piece which wrongly claimed that the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg was to address Conservative party conference led to the regulator ordering a published apology.
“The Canary took that on the chin, they did everything we asked them to do and published a correction and apology on the home page for 48 hours,” says Heawood. “The ultimate sanction for us would be to expel someone from membership but that would be if there was evidence of the worst systematic breach of the code and we certainly didn’t feel it was appropriate in that case.”
During 2018-2019, 18% of Impress-regulated publishers received complaints from the public, leading to 44 corrections. Only 39 complaints reached Impress and of 15 investigations undertaken since the start of 2018, six complaints have been upheld in full or in part.
Ipso, which represents the vast majority of established titles in the written media, is only a short walk away from Impress in Ludgate Circus. But the two regulators have few dealings. Heawood says there is a “formal” relationship of directing complainants who have appealed to the wrong regulator but that Impress has more interaction with Ofcom, the Advertising Standards Authority and the Information Commissioner’s Office, which he says are more concerned in examining the future of media regulation.
On 14 November, Impress will hold its second annual Trust in Journalism Conference in London. After a period in which newspapers have come under renewed attack over intrusion into the personal lives of high-profile figures, including cricketer Ben Stokes, rugby star Gareth Thomas and the former prime minister David Cameron, Heawood contends that public trust in the media is being further undermined by polarisation in society. “There are parts of the population that will distrust you not because of how good you are as a journalist but because they don’t like the information you are presenting to them.”
But he defends Impress’s regulation of sites such as The Canary – and other left-wing sites such as The Skwawkbox and Novara Media. “Some of our members are partisan and we have always said that’s okay as long as they get their facts right, that’s the nature of our code.” Impress, he claims, is a “broad church”. It oversees outlets from environmental site DeSmog UK to the Polish-language title Brexit Standard.
As well as working with other regulators, Impress has been involved with the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in its plans to make the internet more trustworthy and safe. It’s another reason why the regulator can help a wider range of online outlets, Heawood says.
“If the Online Harms white paper goes forward – and I think it’s very likely whatever government we have is going to want to do something about social media because there’s such a public outcry – that’s likely to create a new framework where there may be new risks and liabilities for all kinds of content creators.”
For the past four months it has been at the forefront of what it calls the ‘Independent Publishers Taskforce’, which was set up with a grant from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust to identify the needs of the sector.
Heawood says that the future of community-based journalism requires a more nuanced approach than that pursued by the BBC’s Local Democracy Network (which contributes £8m-a-year to fund council and court reporters for regional publishers). “It’s going to need a much more tailored package of support, recognising the needs of publisher by publisher and coming up with a combination of cash, coaching, consultancy and networking.”
Together, the 131 small publishers under the Impress umbrella reach an estimated monthly audience of 11 million. “It’s a not-insignificant chunk of the British population that is getting some of its information diet from this part of the sector," says the regulator’s chief exec.
Some national news outlets remain outside of Ipso and bringing one of them within Impress’s stable would transform its reach at a stroke. Heawood might say "the door is open" but there’s no prospect of such a signing.
Impress is instead carving out its position at the forefront of independent publishing. It will seek to regulate such outlets but also to help them to overcome the “high barriers” faced in turning a poorly-resourced news site into a viable operation.
Promoting these grassroots alternative voices is “in everyone’s interests”, he argues. “Whether you are a big publisher or a small publisher, on the right or the left or straight down the middle, the more that the public can see that the media is diverse and there is something for everyone, the more trust they will have in the media as a whole.”