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Free press comes at a high price

January 24, 2017

 

My first inkling that something might be wrong with newspapers occurred to me as a teenager when a national tabloid misquoted the lyrics of a contemporary pop song.

 

As I read on, it dawned on me that this was not a mistake made by out-of-touch oldies. This was a deliberate action to stoke up outrage among readers in the days when the dissolute lifestyle of rock 'n rollers was news.

 

Thereafter, the warning that one should not believe everything you read in the press took on a practical meaning.

 

It may sound strange for someone who operates in my field of work but I very seldom read a newspaper. That’s more a choice made out of personal convenience than any position statement but the outcome amounts to the same thing.

 

I use online feeds to screen out all the partisan dross and celeb chatter. So it was with a detached sense of interest that I recently stumbled upon something called the Press Regulation Panel (PRP).

 

This august body was created through Royal Charter in November 2014 as a result of recommendations for the Leveson Inquiry. Their remit is to oversee self-regulation within the newspaper industry.

 

The PRP insist they’re “entirely independent of the government, parliament, the press or any other such interest”. Maybe so, say its critics but they also point to the funding arrangement with former F1 tycoon Mosley, who has provided £3.8m towards the organisation’s running costs.

 

Mosely famously won a high-profile legal case against the News of the World after it revealed details of his private life.

 

What makes all this topical is an impending bit of legislation known as Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. Basically, this will create the situation that if a newspaper prints an article to which someone objects, they will have the right to take the paper to court and have their costs paid even if they lose.

 

The only way for a publication to escape this potentially ruinous situation would be to join one of the approved regulatory bodies.

 

Most of the big press names maintain that their own existing body, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), does a sterling job and that registering with the PRP would effectively be state regulation – and that would only apply in England and Wales.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I've had my own problems with the press over the years but even I can make the distinction between nationals who habitually print sensational headlines followed by half-hidden retractions and a regional press trying to eke out an existence.

 

It’s a bit of a stand-off and something of a bemusement to those who look at how Ofcom regulates what we see on our screens and ask why newspapers can’t be subject to the same restraints.

 

Maybe that’s because its largely newspapers that tend to do the investigative exposés and broadcasters that subsequently report them.

 

Back in 1991, a government minister called David Mellor warned that newspapers were drinking in the last chance saloon over press intrusion. It’s taken quarter of a century but it looks like ‘last orders’ is finally about to be called.

 

 

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One-sided crackdown on whiplash

 

This month saw the closure of some rather limited consultation on measures by the Ministry of Justice over soft-tissue injury claims.

 

The government changes have been prompted by an increase in potentially fraudulent personal injury (whiplash) claims that have “flooded the courts”, say ministers – although police figures suggest something different.

 

In essence, the idea is to adjust matters so that litigation is directed to small claims contests where a fast-track but fixed limit of £5000 applies. That sounds like a good idea on the surface until you figure out that legal fees cannot be re-claimed.

 

According to Neath MP Christina Rees, who is also shadow minister for justice, it’s something of a one-sided crackdown whereby insurance companies are the only clear winners.

 

Some drivers would notionally see a £40 annual drop in premiums. But the government is on record as saying they won’t force insurers to pass on any of the estimated £200m per year minimum savings.

 

 

 

A long and winding tale

 

A worrying reflection of how sad a life I’ve had is that my ears still prick up at the mention of the Morfa Distributor Road.

 

During a previous existence, the notion of a Hafod by-pass – or some alternative route relieving pressure on Neath Road as a northern artery to the city centre - has continually been somewhere on the books.

 

The problem however was that whenever a council capital budget meeting was held to trim pet projects from the list of essentials, the relief road was an inevitable early casualty.

 

Now it looks like this long-term ambition will be realised and ready for use by the end of next month.

 

I’m delighted that has now been made possible by a combination of financial packaging and riverside development. I’m sure that exciting proposals for a Hafod-Morfa Copperworks project will also flourish in the process.

 

It’s been a long journey but most definitely a worthwhile one.

 

 

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