30 Oct 2013

Newspapers lose battle to stop parties’ royal charter

Newspaper publishers say they will push for a judicial review after they were refused an injunction to stop ministers going to the privy council to seek the Queen’s approval for a new royal charter.

Lord Dyson, Master of the Rolls, sitting with two other court of appeal judges, refused to grant an interim order pending further legal action.

The judge said: “I have considered this request with Lord Justice Moore-Bick and Lord Justice Elias. We are not willing to grant interim relief ‘administratively’ pending an application for permission to appeal.”

The newspaper publishers appealed against a high court rejection earlier of their bid to block a new cross-party royal charter to regulate the press.

Two judges dismissed their application to seek judicial review of what they described as the privy council’s “unfair, irrational and unlawful” decision to reject the newspaper industry’s own proposals for a rival charter.

Lord Justice Richards, sitting with Mr Justice Sales, said the merits of their legal case were “at best weak”.

The judges, sitting at London’s high court, also refused the publishers an application for an injunction to stop ministers going to the privy council this afternoon with plans to seek the Queen’s approval for the cross-party charter, which is bitterly opposed by much of the industry. Newspaper publishers said they would appeal.

The newspaper and magazine industry reacted by saying: “We are deeply disappointed with this decision, which denies the newspaper and magazine industry the right properly to make their case that the Privy Council’s decision to reject their charter was unfair and unlawful.

“This is a vital constitutional issue and we will be taking our case for judicial review – of the Privy Council’s decisions on both the industry charter and the cross-party charter – to the Court of Appeal.”

There is no information yet on when the appeal will be heard.

Read more: Newspapers' plans for press regulation rejected

Lord Justice Richards said he did not accept that the procedure adopted by the privy council could have unfairly prevented the Press Standards Board of Finance (PressBof) from putting the industry’s case case for its rival charter forward.

The judge said: “It is simply that the considerations telling against the proposal were such as, in my view, to make it inconceivable that anything additional the claimant had to say would have made any difference.”

Ruling that the balance came down firmly against granting an interim injunction, he said there was a strong public interest in allowing the privy council to proceed to consider the government’s proposed charter for which there was cross-party support and which had been endorsed by parliament.

Cross-party charter

The Queen has already been urged by a group of international press freedom bodies not to sign the cross-party charter, and industry sources said the privy council should now reconsider its plans.

The application for judicial review was made by the Press Standards Board of Finance (PressBof), the industry body which funds the regulatory system.

It asked the high court to quash the 8 October decision by a committee of the privy council, made up of government ministers, not to grant the industry charter.

It argued that the application was not dealt with fairly, that the government and privy council failed to consult with the press and that the procedures used were “irrational”.

The application for permission to seek judicial review was heard at London’s high court by Lord Justice Richards and Mr Justice Sales.

PressBof chairman Lord Black of Brentwood said the decision to go to court had been made because of the “enormous ramifications for free speech” of the case in the UK and across the globe.

The proposals going before the privy council involve the establishment of a new Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) to replace the Press Complaints Commission as the industry’s watchdog.

Industry-wide approval

Lawyers for Culture Secretary Maria Miller will be opposing today’s legal challenge.

A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said the industry royal charter had been considered in “an entirely proper and fair way” by a privy council sub committee and the culture secretary had secured significant changes to the cross-party charter to address press concerns.

“The government is working to bring in a system of independent press self-regulation that will protect press freedom while offering real redress when mistakes are made,” the spokesman said.

The rival royal charters are similar in many respects.

Both would create a “recognition panel” to oversee an independent self-regulatory body with powers to impose fines of up to £1m on newspapers for wrongdoing.

However, while the press charter would require industry-wide approval for any amendments, the politicians’ version could be changed by a two-thirds majority in parliament, sparking fears within the industry that future governments could seek to encroach upon media freedom.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s official spokesman said: “There are legal proceedings that are under way and decisions that the court may take.

“But there has been no change to the current timetable.”

Changes to charter

Further changes have been made to the royal charter on press regulation agreed between the three main political parties, including a measure aimed at limiting the ability of parliament to alter it in future.

Under the new version, any change will require not just a two-thirds majority in each of the Houses of Parliament but also the unanimous agreement of the board of the recognition panel.

The new charter also makes clear the definition of “relevant publisher” that is being used, meaning it will require the amendment process to expand the scope of the document.

A government source said the changes were designed to address press concerns about political meddling.

Ministers claim that the “parliamentary lock” requiring a two-thirds majority in both houses strengthened the charter against interference by politicians, but the document now contains a further safeguard.

“Now not only do you need a two-thirds majority of both Houses, you also need the agreement of the recognition panel,” the source said.

“This is an independent body appointed by the Public Appointments Commission, which will have industry representation on it.”

Although the panel excludes serving and former editors, the source said there were a “whole range of people that could be deemed to have industry experience”.

A range of other technical changes have been made to the document, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said.