Ashley Highfield is CEO of Britain’s third-biggest regional and local newspaper group, Johnston Press, which owns about 200 titles. He has written a pleading letter to readers of those papers that is a monument to corporate distortion.
First he asks readers to lobby their MPs against a piece of legislation whose motivations and effects he systematically misrepresents.
Then he shamelessly presents himself as a defender of local journalism when his record in the industry is one of relentless cuts, sackings and closures.
His letter’s target is Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, a measure implementing Leveson Inquiry recommendations that was passed by all parties in Parliament in 2013 but which, under press pressure, the Conservative government is refusing to put into action. Section 40 is about to come before the Commons again and Highfield wants it blocked.
In making his case he repeats arguments and claims that were rejected as ‘unconvincing and misleading’ only last year in a unanimous report by the cross-party Commons Media Select Committee. Here are the worst:
Highfield: ’When enacting Leveson’s recommendations, ministers wanted every paper in the land to sign up to a regulator approved by a state-appointed panel.’
Wrong. Leveson did indeed want newspapers to sign up to a press regulator that met minimum standards of independence and effectiveness, to prevent the repetition of the gross regulatory failures of the past (failures Highfield does not mention). But there is no ‘state-appointed panel’. There is a body called the Press Recognition Panel (PRP) which is entirely independent of ministers or any other politicians – they are explicitly barred from any role in appointing its members and also from any influence over its actions.
Highfield: ’They made a law [Section 40] that said if a title didn’t join an approved regulator, then anytime they were taken to court – whether they won or lost – they would have to pay all the costs, including of unsuccessful claimants.’
Wrong. As Highfield knows but again does not mention to his readers, Section 40 explicitly states that this can only happen where the judge ‘is satisfied that it is just and equitable in all the circumstances of the case’. In other words, if and when the issue of costs arises, news publishers will have a chance to argue the fairness point in court. The suggestion that it is automatic is simply false.
Highfield also fails to mention to his readers that Section 40 is primarily a measure to address the scandal that only the rich or the very fortunate can take a case to court when they have been libelled or suffered a breach or privacy. Leveson said there should be a low-cost arbitration system for this – and under Section 40 papers could only be subject to adverse costs orders by a court if they refuse to let a complainant use recognised arbitration and instead force him or her into costly court proceedings.
Highfield: ’If someone didn’t like a critical story their local newspaper had run, they could threaten legal action in the knowledge that even if they lost they would face no cost and the newspaper would be damaged, possibly ruined.’
Wrong. A further advantage of Section 40 is that for the first time it offers complete protection to journalists from this fear, known as ‘chilling’. When a news publisher is a member of a PRP-recognised regulator (and such regulators are required to be free from any political influence) it simply can’t be ‘chilled’ by threats of legal actions for libel or breach of privacy. Editors and managements can reply to a threat by saying: ‘We are going to publish and if you don’t like what we say you can see us in low-cost arbitration.’
As for the danger of financial ruin, Highfield knows that in the extremely rare event of a local newspaper being sued it is not the paper that carries the financial risk but the corporation that owns it. His own corporation reported an operating profit in 2016 of £42m, so there is no danger it would be ruined.
And as if that were not enough, in 2013 a special exemption was included in Section 40 for any local papers that could show that they were at risk of serious financial harm. Highfield did not mention this.
Highfield: ’To be absolutely clear, we want and expect robust press regulation . . . The new, industry backed regulator we are now signed up to is tougher than critics realise.’
Wrong. His company has signed up to IPSO, a regulator based on a blueprint that Sir Brian Leveson in his inquiry report rejected as a sham. As the judge also made clear, what constitutes ‘robust’ regulation can’t be left to newspaper executives to decide. They have been promising to deliver robust regulation for 70 years and have never done so, and the price for victims of press abuses has been unacceptably high. It is the independent PRP that decides, and Highfield and his friends in the corporate press can’t submit IPSO to PRP assessment because they know it would fail.
Highfield: ’If this reckless act is not overturned, many papers will not be around to serve local communities at all.’
Wrong. Section 40 was supported by every party in Parliament. It arose from a rare cross-party agreement on implementing the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry, which had sat for a year hearing the evidence of every interested party. That’s not reckless. And as explained above, Section 40 does not threaten the future of any of Johnston Press’s titles.
Highfield fails to mention to his readers the greatest real threat to their local papers, which is himself and the management he leads. Johnston has a very long record of closures, and they continue to this day. Between November 2015 and March 2017 it closed 20 local newspapers and cut some 100 journalism jobs. This was at the same time that it was able to find £24m to buy the i – a national paper not a local one.
Distortion of this kind is characteristic of the corporate UK press. It is also characteristic that the big companies push local newspapers to the forefront of their battle to block Section 40 – they know there is no trust left for the Sun, Mail, Mirror and other national papers, so they hide behind local titles for which there is still affection and sympathy.
The truth that Highfield won’t admit to his readers is that local papers with high journalistic standards have everything to gain from full participation in Leveson-standard regulation. They will be freer. They will be more financially secure. They will be better placed to command public trust.
And if Highfield was genuinely committed to the kind of accuracy and fair debate that many associate with the best local journalism he would agree to publish this article, with equal prominence, in every Johnston outlet that publishes his own message.