Increased press regulation is not only an affront to free speech - it's bad for PR, too

Professional communicators were once judged on their ability to persuade journalists to report favourably on their clients.

Increased press regulation harms us all, warns Peter Curtain
Increased press regulation harms us all, warns Peter Curtain
By securing positive coverage from an independent reporter, you achieved third-party endorsement – far more convincing than advertising.

Digital has since brought new ways to persuade, heralding earned, owned and paid-for communications. Yet earned media retains huge importance.

A free, independent press is vital to this process.
If newspapers cannot report unvarnished news and express robust comment for fear of costly litigation, the value of influence falls. 

It could happen. New proposals would see libel costs awarded against any newspaper that's not a member of an approved regulator – even where it has successfully defended a claim, so proving its reporting justified.

This ugly development advanced a step on 25 October when the Press Recognition Panel (PRP) approved a body funded by the aggrieved campaigner Max Mosley as a state-backed watchdog, despite lacking national newspaper members. 
One marvels at how taxpayers came to fund this campaign against free speech. The PRP is a gift to those who say quangos subvert proper government. 

Clearly, modern politicians' determination to punish even defensible reporting has major implications for free speech and democracy.

However, expect commercial consequences, too – content generated by a tamed newspaper industry will carry much less weight. 

Courts have been quick to penalise reputational damage or hurt feelings. There are many instances of corrupt people in powerful positions rushing to law, only for the truth to emerge later. 

How much worse it will be when they can sue with little or no financial risk.

Thanks to our harsh libel laws, local newspapers have for years struggled to hold the powerful to account. 

Anyone with a basic knowledge of how newspapers work understands this.

The new rules are a far greater threat to an industry at which Britain excels, to the jobs of dedicated journalists and to a valued source of independent information on which local communities have relied for generations.

How can any organisation do its job properly – then be ordered to fund an unsuccessful litigant’s claim?
 
Large media groups might cope by diverting investment from news to entertainment; smaller, independent publications will be defenceless. 

Some politicians are no doubt motivated by resentment over the expenses story and continued media scrutiny. 

Others, I believe, betray naivety and lack of commercial experience – libel fees can quickly run into hundreds of thousands of pounds, sometimes more.

Editors will have to balance a high risk of financial ruin against insulting their readers by pandering to vested interests. 

As we see daily, newsgathering is risky and difficult. Faced with exposure, the powerful are quick to threaten consequences. 

What business would pursue a cause, however just, if it risked not just losing in court, but forfeiting vast legal fees on the whim of a judge – even if it 'wins'? 

The press will suffer, so will PRs. Those concerned should write to their MPs – and their newspaper. 

Peter Curtain is director of Allerton Communications and a former journalist

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