16th August 2023
Lexie Kirkconnell-Kawana: Committee inquiry undermines press freedom & reveals lack of confidence in press regulation

This is an opinion piece by Impress CEO Lexie Kirkconnell-Kawana. Lexie is a New Zealand qualified barrister and solicitor who has worked in all forms of media regulation. She has previously worked at the Advertising Standards Authority in the investigations team and at the New Zealand Office of Film and Literature Classification, an independent state media regulator, in a research and semi-judicial capacity.

By Lexie Kirkconnell-Kawana, Chief Executive Officer of Impress.

Long have there been debates about press freedom, a funny deictic term which, to some, means newspaper owners can print whatever they like without regard to the rest of us and, to others, means a more nuanced balance of rights and responsibilities, so the public can have access to information they need and power can be held to account.

In its purest sense, press freedom, or being free from state interference, means newspaper publishers should be able to go about their day-to-day business without the Government or politicians making laws and applying pressure in a way that limits their activity.

So, when the Culture, Media and Sport Committee recently asked Victoria Newton, Editor of the Sun Newspaper, to explain its editorial processes per its reporting on Huw Edwards, it said the inquiry was not about challenging individual stories but about public confidence in editorial standards.

Irrespective of the Committee’s intention, an editor being subject to the scrutiny of a select committee is undoubtedly intimidatory and sets a perverse precedent for ongoing political interference in the press.

It is true that misconduct continues to plague parts of the industry, public trust in newspapers remains at a historic low and journalists are one of the least trusted professions in the UK. But this is not for lack of drive or effort for reform.

Ten years ago, the industry and Government, with cross-party support, designed a system of non-Government, independent self-regulation that sought to address this lack of public confidence. The system of recognition that emerged was designed so that no MP or Peer could control a press self-regulatory body and for said body to have the appropriate powers to investigate misconduct and issue proportionate remedies in the case of harm.

But since that consensus, both the Government and some parts of the industry have walked back on promises to reform, leading to this unsatisfactory state of affairs we now find ourselves in with low public confidence AND compromised press freedom.

The homepage for the official website of The Sun, a daily national tabloid newspaper published in the UK, on 26th April 2017.
The Sun Editor-In-Chief Victoria Newton has been the subject of questioning by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

Impress, the self-regulatory body I run, represents the last bastion of the system of recognition, and the 200+ news brands that have voluntarily signed up to it represent a growing movement of newsmakers willing to give effect once more to a consensus that ensures the public has news that can be trusted.

We aren’t state-backed or a creature of statute; rather a movement of civil society, the public and publishers working together for a reimagined media future. We can and have proactively investigated cases of potential misconduct, and the public have an active role in defining press standards and how they apply.

Politicians can and have complained to Impress about news articles from time to time, but they cannot apply improper pressure to the newspapers we regulate. I am particularly proud of how this movement enshrines press freedom in this way.

Newton has since responded to the Committee but rightly pointed out that further questioning ‘would extend beyond proper enquiry by parliament into a free press’ suggesting the Sun is subject to law and regulatory oversight. She may think so, but the Committee does not appear to agree.

Not all self-regulation is made equal, and if the Sun was subject to independent and effective self-regulatory oversight, I doubt the Committee would have felt so compelled to apply pressure in the Kangaroo Court way it has.

It’s why Reporters without Borders and Index on Censorship do not think much of the state of press freedom here in the UK, and why should anyone. Public confidence in the press and our aspirations of press freedom will only come about when we reach a tipping point, when all legitimate news in the UK is subject to independent and effective self-regulation.

About Impress 

Impress is a champion for news that can be trusted. We are here to make sure news providers can publish with integrity; and the public can engage in an ever-changing media landscape with confidence. We set the highest regulatory standards for news, offer education to help people make informed choices and provide resolution when disputes arise. 

Media enquiries

Louie Chandler: louie@impressorg.com / 02033076778