12 Oct 2013

Press regulation: deal reached but battle has begun

MPs have agreed a deal on a proposed royal charter that they hope will be the workable solution to press regulation. But the newspapers reject it outright.

It has been long, bitter and at times, fractuous and divisive. But 10 months after the publication of the Leveson report, the battle to introduce new press regulation could finally be nearing a conclusion.

On Friday, the three main political parties reached a deal on a proposed royal charter for a new system of press regulation.

A decision… finally

News of the decision broke just after 4pm on Friday, topping off a dramatic week.

On Tuesday night it emerged that a subcommittee of the Privy Council had rejected proposals by the newspaper industry to regulate the press.

The next day Maria Miller, the Conservative culture secretary, said she wanted to put forward a “workable solution” to newspaper regulation.

Now, after extensive talks between the shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman and the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Wallace, it appears that the Privy Council – a committee answerable to the Queen – has finally closed in on a deal. The agreed draft could become a formal royal charter by the end of October.

A new system

The new system of arbitration proposes charging those who want to take action against newspapers. Under the charter, the job of adjudicating on complaints and imposing penalties will be performed by a new self-regulatory body set up by the industry to replace the Press Complaints Commission.

A recognition panel would be required to verify whether this watchdog was effective and genuinely independent of publishers.

However, it would be up to individual publishers to sign up to a regulator endorsed by the panel, and there is speculation that many or all of the major newspapers could opt out of the proposed system if it does not address their concerns over freedom from political interference.

Different reactions

Now the wider question is whether news groups – ranging from the publishers of the Daily Mail and the Sun – will accept it.

Labour has agreed to a series of changes put forward by Culture Secretary Maria Miller intended to make the charter more palatable to the press, according to sources.

But the newspaper industry has criticised the latest proposals for a new system of press regulation, saying they could not be described as either “voluntary or independent”.

“This remains a charter written by politicians, imposed by politicians and controlled by politicians. It has not been approved by any of the newspapers or magazines it seeks to regulate,” it said.

“Meanwhile the industry’s charter was rejected by eight politicians, meeting in secret, and chaired by the same politician who is promoting the politicians’ charter.

“Lord Justice Leveson called for ‘voluntary, independent self-regulation’ of the press. It is impossible to see how a regulator operating under rules imposed by politicians, and enforced by draconian and discriminatory provisions for damages and costs in civil cases, could be said to be either voluntary or independent.”

Chris Blackhurst, the former editor of the Independent, said “the wrangling is not over”. “My guess is that the large newspapers groups will not sign up to this. There is little we can object to, but we don’t want to be on our own. If everyone swings in, that’s fantastic. But it’s unlikely.”

But with newspapers, currently pouring over the document (available here), there could be more to come.