SPOTLIGHT | Cordella Bart-Stewart OBE, IMPRESS Board member: "Press freedom must come with journalists bearing a responsibility to be accurate and truthful"

Cordella Bart-Stewart OBE joined the Board of IMPRESS in July 2020. She has over 30 years’ experience as a solicitor, has established her own general legal practice in 1990, and founded the award-winning Black Solicitors Network.

In this IMPRESS Spotlight, Cordella sits down with our Communications and Engagement Manager Clara Aguirre to explain why she joined the IMPRESS Board, how she builds on her experience in social justice and legal practice to help enforce press standards, and why representation, in both law and regulation, matters.

> How did your experience in social justice and legal practice take you to join IMPRESS?

My main areas of work and interests are equality, human rights and the public interest. One of my specialisms in private practice was family law, particularly disputes concerning children which led to a particular interest in the safety of children. I believe there needs to be a conversation on their right to privacy, better protection from press intrusion and the risk of online harm.

Also, I come from a community which traditionally has little trust in institutions and the press. But I understand how important it is that journalists can report fearlessly and call truth to power. And this press freedom must come with journalists bearing a responsibility to be accurate and truthful, and sadly that is not always the case.

There is also an issue of representation. In this country, institutions are not as diverse and inclusive as they should be. When it comes to law, I know too well that money, class and race are barriers to those who practise it and those who end up as parties to proceedings. The same holds true in journalism. More barriers are being erected and there’s increasing societal division with people effectively talking in “echo chambers”. Much of my legal practice has been serving those trying to get on with ordinary lives, ensuring that 99% are represented, can cut through the noise, and are given a voice. I joined IMPRESS to help address these barriers to representation in journalism and to support the work of high-quality ethical journalists.

> How would you describe your experience in taking part in regulatory committees as a Board member?

I have been a tribunal judge for over 20 years. Usually, I hear cases alone without having to consult with anyone else. This contrasts with the IMPRESS regulatory committees, where a significant effort is placed by IMPRESS staff to ensure that all parties are given an opportunity to present their information and arguments, and have an opportunity to resolve the issue without the need for formal adjudication.

Importantly, the process is entirely impartial. This is helpful in narrowing the issues, and focusing on the particular code clauses that may have been breached. It helps to weed out unmeritorious complaints or justifications at an early stage which can save the parties time and lead to early resolution; a process that would be useful for courts to follow. The makeup of the panels from a variety of backgrounds and experience, from both inside and outside of the industry, results in a nuanced and well-informed discussion. Many of these discussions are helpful in looking at how the Code and guidance can be better improved via our ongoing Code Review process.

> Regulation and misinformation: The challenge of supporting high-quality journalism, and educating the public

We are in the ironic position where “fake news” and misinformation is becoming acceptable. We are told trust in journalism is low, while the mainstream newspapers have either held up or increased readership as has broadcast news during a global emergency. The amount of news circulating and being shared on social media platforms suggests a clear demand for “news”. The challenge is educating the public on how to distinguish between fake news and misinformation, and fact-based responsible journalism.  

At law school, a business law tutor used to say that legal advice was worth what you pay for it. Perhaps that might apply to high-quality journalism. I expect subscription-based models will continue to grow. But many cannot afford to pay, and the danger is locking people out by paywalls and leaving them at the mercy of the creators and distributors of false information. When I started out in law practise, those who could not pay were supported by the state or subsidised by those who could pay. We have to find a way to support high-quality journalism, while ensuring they are truthful and accurate, and follow high-quality journalistic practices. This is the mission we face at IMPRESS as an independent press regulator.

> In focus: IMPRESS Standards Code Review

I was particularly attracted to joining the IMPRESS Board upon learning of the proposed Code Review it has recently launched, and I am pleased to be part of the IMPRESS Code Committee, which advises on the development of the IMPRESS standards.

Discrimination is another key issue. Few have the resources to take on publications where race is the undercurrent to bad reporting. I have also become aware over the last few months of how much the black and Asian communities are being drawn into conspiracy theories created by non-verified sources and distributed by social media. As publishers scramble to fill their pages, I have seen even legacy media reproduce fake content. Accuracy must always be the key standard.

> Why should publishers join IMPRESS?

I operate in a profession where mandatory regulation is a given and accepted as necessary. Good regulation drives high standards and trust. Consumers are now guided by ratings and in most areas, feedback is of massive importance and drives business. It is no different for publishers.

Good regulatory schemes are proportionate and will not fetter responsible journalism. Joining IMPRESS is a message to readers that a publication takes them seriously; that the publication strives to uphold high standards, while accepting sometimes they will get it wrong and will need to make corrections.

Importantly, it shows the public that they can trust what they are reading. Signing up to be regulated by IMPRESS is a step in the right direction and is nothing to fear. As a young regulator, IMPRESS is also able to focus on helping its members to grow and thrive by developing services and members benefit. It offers more than just being told what to do.

Cordella Bart-Stewart OBE has over 30 years’ experience as a solicitor and established her own general legal practice in North London in 1990. She has a strong interest in equality and human rights issues and has specialised in family and immigration law for over 25 years. She has been a fee paid Judge of the First Tier Tribunal since 2000. Formerly an independent Governor of Staffordshire University, which awarded her an Honorary Doctorate. She is a Chartered Manager and Companion of the Chartered Management Institute. She is a serving Director and founding member of the award winning Black Solicitors Network, was shortlisted as the Law Society Gazette Legal Personality of the Year in the Law Society Excellence Awards 2014 and is a member of the Council of Law Society of England & Wales. She was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s 2021 New Year Honours list for services to the Legal Profession and to Diversity and Education.