Newspapers are considering whether to sign up to a new regulator agreed by the main political parties, amid deep divisions over the implications for Britain’s centuries-old tradition of press freedom.
Some of the biggest national newspaper publishers warned that there were a number of “deeply contentious issues” surrounding the scheme unveiled in Parliament which had still to be resolved.
There was outright condemnation from the Newspaper Society, representing the UK’s 1,100 local newspapers, which warned the plans – including fines of up to £1 million – would place a “crippling burden” on local press. “A free press cannot be free if it is dependent on and accountable to a regulatory body recognised by the state,” said Newspaper Society president Adrian Jeakings.
Meanwhile, the 57-nation Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) urged Britain not to abandon a tradition of press self-regulation regarded around the world as best practice.
In the Commons, David Cameron said the deal hammered out in late night talks between the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats, would safeguard investigative journalism and freedom while protecting the victims of press intrusion, in line with the recommendations of Lord Justice Leveson. But there was immediate division between the parties as to the extent to which the new regulator had the “statutory underpinning” demanded by the Hacked Off group campaigning for tighter press regulation.
Under the plan, a royal charter – set to be approved by the Queen at the May meeting of the Privy Council – will establish a “regulation panel” to oversee the new system of press self-regulation. At the same time, bills going through the Lords and Commons were amended to prevent the charter being changed without the support of a two-thirds “super majority” in both Houses and to enable the courts to impose “exemplary” damages on newspapers which do not sign up to the new system.
Mr Cameron insisted they did not “cross the Rubicon” of creating a press law, which could be used by future governments to suppress free speech. But Labour leader Ed Miliband maintained it did have “statutory underpinning”, while Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg – who sided with Labour against his Conservative coalition partner – said it was “a royal charter protected by legislation”.
A joint statement signed by the Mail and Telegraph groups, News International and Northern and Shell, made clear they had serious concerns about the plan. It stressed that – unlike Hacked Off who had four representatives at the talks in Mr Miliband’s Commons office where the deal was clinched – they were not involved in the discussions.
“We have only late this afternoon seen the royal charter that the political parties have agreed between themselves and, more pertinently, the recognition criteria, early drafts of which contained several deeply contentious issues which have not yet been resolved with the industry,” the statement said. “In the light of this we are not able to give any response on behalf of the industry to this afternoon’s proposals until we have had time to study them.”
For the Newspaper Society, Mr Jeakings, the chief executive of the Archant group, said local newspapers were fiercely opposed to any form of statutory involvement or underpinning in the regulation of the press. “The royal charter proposals agreed by the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour – with huge financial penalties for newspapers which choose to be outside the system and an arbitration service which would open the floodgates to compensation claimants – would place a crippling burden on the UK’s 1,100 local newspapers, inhibiting freedom of speech and the freedom to publish,” he said.