Ashley Highfield: The House of Lords is risking the future of local newspapers

Ashley Highfield, Johnston Press chief executive, in the newsroom of The Yorkshire Post.
Ashley Highfield, Johnston Press chief executive, in the newsroom of The Yorkshire Post.

THIS week the Prime Minister announced a review into the health of the news media, including the regional and local press.

It is very much to be welcomed. There are real, long-term challenges facing our industry – not least the role of the role of the tech giants, Facebook and Google, who hoover up most advertising revenue – profiting from journalism they do not produce – and preventing publishers from generating a fair return on the content they produce.

So we will be participating in this debate, and the Government’s review, and looking for long-term solutions to protect our readers, and the local communities, that we serve.

But today I am writing about an even more pressing short-term challenge. Just a few weeks before Theresa May underlined the vital importance of local papers to our democracy, the House of Lords did something astonishing to undermine our work.

They used an entirely unrelated Bill on data protection to sneak through an amendment that could threaten the existence of many local newspapers. Now elected MPs need to protect the work of the local press – and local democracy – by undoing the work of unelected peers.

We need them to vote down this harmful, backdoor threat to local and regional papers like the one you are reading, hence why I am writing directly to encourage all of our readers to make your views known to your MP and ensure we continue to have a vibrant and free local press.

Ashley Highfield, chief executive of Johnston Press

Ashley Highfield, chief executive of Johnston Press

As chief executive of Johnston Press, the company that publishes this title, I’m an evangelist for all local papers. I agree with Lord Leveson, who published a report into press ethics some years back and said such titles were “good for our communities, our identity and our democracy and play an important social role”.

Practices on certain national newspapers were appalling, and the culture that led to phones being hacked needed to be radically overhauled through the Leveson Inquiry.

But one of Leveson’s recommendations – that newspapers should be forced to sign up to a Government-sponsored regulator or face the guarantee of ruinous court costs – is frankly terrible for the local press.

It worked like this. When enacting Leveson’s recommendations, Ministers wanted every paper in the land to sign up to a regulator approved by a state-appointed panel. Practically every paper in the country views this as too much of a step towards state regulation of a free press.

To strong-arm papers into signing up for this kind of regulation, they made a law (Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act) 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 those of unsuccessful claimants.

Just think that through for a moment. The smallest, most dedicated local paper (a title with one full-time journalist for example) could be taken to court, win on every count, but still have to pay all the costs of the losing complainant as well their own.

Not only is that unfair, and not only would it create a constant fear of financial ruin, but this fear would have a devastating effect on the freedom of journalists to do what we all need them to do: to hold the powerful to account without fear or favour.

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. It would have a chilling effect on journalism.

That is why we were relieved when the Government said it would repeal this awful measure, but now the Lords wants those provisions to be enforced through another means.

To be absolutely clear, we want – and expect – robust press regulation. But that cannot mean a choice between quasi-state regulation and the constant fear of financial annihilation at the hand of those who do not want to be held to account.

The new, industry-backed regulator we are now signed up to is tougher than critics realise. If an investigation is triggered by the Independent Press Standards Organisation, a vast number of work hours can be spent exhaustively going through notebooks full of shorthand and taped recordings in order to be sure we got the story right, and to resolve any complaint.

We always want to get the story right: that is how we serve our readers and our business won’t prosper unless we serve them well.

So elected MPs, even if they’ve been on the wrong end of tough scrutiny from their local paper, need to stand up for a free press and local democracy. If they agree that their constituents must have the opportunity to hold them accountable through free and fair reporting, they must overturn the vote in the Lords.

If this reckless Act is not overturned, many papers will not be around to serve local communities at all.