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28 September 2017

NMA Writes to PRP After IMPRESS Internal Review Finds 'Serious Issues' With Charter Compliance

The News Media Association has written to the Press Recognition Panel asking how it is going to proceed after an internal review by IMPRESS found that chief executive Jonathan Heawood had breached internal standards against bringing the organisation into disrepute and this raised "serious issues" about IMPRESS' compliance with the Royal Charter.  

In a letter yesterday to PRP chief executive Susie Uppal, the NMA said that it understood that although its risk assessment had yet to be completed, the PRP had indicated that it believed there had been a serious breach of recognition Criterion 23 which states: 'The membership of a regulatory body should be open to all publishers on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms, including making membership potentially available on different terms for different types of publisher.'

The letter added: "Given the concerns over this issue raised by the NMA and others, I would be grateful if you could let me know the outcome of the PRP’s risk assessment and how the PRP now plans to proceed."  

IMPRESS published on Tuesday, apparently for the first time, a document entitled Addressing Concerns About IMPRESS’ Impartiality: Final Report of the Internal Review Panel in which it described the findings of an internal review following concerns raised by the NMA and others about tweets distributed by Mr Heawood and a number of IMPRESS Board members strongly criticising newspapers and journalists.  

The document was dated May 2017 although it appears to have been published for the first time on 26 September via a link at the bottom of a press release headlined 'IMPRESS is Growing Fast..' The NMA's judicial review challenging the PRP's recognition of IMPRESS was heard over 29 and 30 June.  

The NMA had originally raised concerns about IMPRESS Board members' tweets in December 2016. In a letter to Mr Heawood, the NMA noted that his comments and online conduct raised questions over whether IMPRESS were appropriate people to run an independent press regulator and could explain, in part, why no significant newspaper or magazine publisher is willing to sign up to IMPRESS. 

The letter stated: “Your views appear to be enthusiastically shared and often repeated by various members of the IMPRESS Board and the IMPRESS code committee. This alone would make it impossible for IMPRESS to be the independent regulator for NMA member newspaper titles.

"All this evidence and more suggest that IMPRESS will never be a credible, impartial and independent regulator but has instead been set up by its funders and founding directors as a vehicle to trigger Section 40 cost sanctions in order to punish the press which you all view with such contempt.”

The IMPRESS report says: “We have found some breaches of IMPRESS’ internal standards by a minority of two of the Board. These breaches raise serious issues regarding compliance with Criterion 23. They have largely occurred as a result of the inappropriate sharing of content on Twitter which criticised The Sun, Daily Mail and News UK and was disrespectful towards particular named journalists.

"We conclude some of this material creates a risk that a fair-minded and informed observer, having considered the facts, would conclude that there was a real possibility of those Board members who disseminated it being biased in relation to their IMPRESS decision-making functions were particular publishers to seek and/or secure membership of IMPRESS’ regulatory scheme.

"One part of a published article which was critical of Fleet Street publishers is also of concern. By ‘bias’ we mean an impediment to the exercise of the objective judgment that reasonably could be expected of a regulator. We are certain no IMPRESS Board decision has been affected by bias or any real possibility of it, not least because the publishers in question have not sought or expressed any interest in becoming scheme members.

 “We have also found breaches of IMPRESS’ internal standards by Jonathan Heawood as IMPRESS’ Chief Executive (‘CEO’). Again, these mainly concern sharing of material on Twitter and how it could be perceived. Mr Heawood has taken responsibility and apologised for the risk and standards breaches identified. Again, we are certain that no decision by Mr Heawood has been affected by bias or any real possibility of it.

“We conclude that Jonathan Heawood has breached the Guidelines by sharing a pattern of material over a short period of time in the form of 19 retweets, which make generalized criticism of the Daily Mail and of The Sun and which showed support for the Stop Funding Hate campaign.

"We find that the act of re-posting this pattern of material led to a criterion (b) breach of the Guidelines because it “could reasonably be viewed as compromising IMPRESS’ impartiality on an issue relevant to IMPRESS’ work”. We find that 6 of these retweets contained comparisons between the Daily Mail’s editorial position and fascism. In our view the repeated sharing by Jonathan Heawood of this material, although not authored by him, led to a criterion (d) breach that “brings IMPRESS into disrepute”.

“We find that Emma Jones, Máire Messenger Davies and Jonathan Heawood have all breached IMPRESS’ internal standards. We agree the PRP is right to indicate this raises serious issues about IMPRESS’ compliance with Criterion 23 for recognition under the Royal Charter for self-regulation of the press.”

Also released with the internal review report yesterday was an IMPRESS Register of Interests, which saw two IMPRESS Board members and its chief executive recuse themselves from aspects of IMPRESS regulation due to their conflicting interests.

The report recommended the establishment of a new committee to deal with complaints about publishers with an annual turnover of £20 million or more although it recommended that three members of the board, including Mr Heawood, do not sit on the committee.  

Martin Hickman, an IMPRESS Board member, noted that he had sufficient contact with IMPRESS member titles Byline, Bellingcat and CommonSpace and stated: “I wish to recuse myself from any discussion or decisions at IMPRESS regarding them.” 

Mr Hickman further stated: “I broadly support the aims of the campaign by Hacked Off for a free and accountable press, and have attended social events organised by Hacked Off. I have not funded nor held any position at Hacked Off (other than that of freelance court reporter). I am a friend of Tom Watson, the Labour MP and Shadow Culture Secretary (with whom I wrote the book Dial M for Murdoch).” 

The internal report notes that Mr Hickman recognised that in relation to News UK “there would be a risk of perception of bias and, given this, he would certainly recuse himself from consideration of any issue, should one arise, in relation to News UK. He has also offered to resign from the Board within 30 days of News UK joining IMPRESS should his place on the board be cited by News UK as a reason why it would not join IMPRESS.”

The register of interest saw Mr Heawood note that he has a “longstanding friendship with Peter Jukes, publisher of Byline. I wish to recuse myself from any discussion or decisions at IMPRESS regarding Positive News or Byline.”

He later stated:“I maintained a Twitter account from 2008-17, on which I posted statements on topics relating to journalism, freedom of expression, press freedom and media ethics. I have now closed this account.”

Emma Jones, IMPRESS Board member, stated in the register: “I wish to recuse myself from any discussion or decisions at IMPRESS regarding Byline. My partner Graham Johnson writes for Byline (an IMPRESS regulated news publisher).”

The internal report recommends that Ms Jones, Mr Hickman and Jonathan Heawood do not sit as members of Regulatory Sub Committee B, once it is established. This committee would be responsible for prospective and actual members who fall into IMPRESS tariff band 7 (turnover of £20 million or more) and any complaints brought by those publishers, their editors or senior executives or journalists.

Máire Messenger Davies, IMPRESS Board member and Chair of the IMPRESS Code Committee, noted in the register that she was on the Hacked Off mailing list, as is her journalist husband. She further noted that her Twitter account which was formerly open, now private, currently had 797 followers and covered occasional tweets and retweets on matters concerning media and press. The internal report recommends that Ms Messenger Davies does not sit as a member of Regulatory Sub Committee B.