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Newspapers spitting blood over parties' 2.30 am deal on press regulation with million-pound fines


By Noel Young, Correspondent

March 18, 2013 | 8 min read

Britain's big media companies are spitting blood over the new system of press regulation agreed by the three big political parties in talks going on till 2.30 am yesterday.

After Leveson, a deal is done

The Independent spelled it out: "Britain’s largest newspaper groups are on a collision course with the Government over press regulation, after signalling their anger at the imposition of “several deeply contentious” issues in a Royal Charter announced in Parliament by the Prime Minister."

The newspaper groups were said to be left furious by the developments having been shut out of the negotiations even though representatives of the press reform group Hacked Off took [art in discussions. A newspaper industry source said: “The newspaper industry only saw this at 4.30pm. None of this has the agreement of the newspaper industry.”

Five major publishing organisations - the Daily Mail Group, News International, Telegraph Media Group, the Newspaper Society (which represents the regional press) and the Professional Publishers Association (which represents the magazine sector) -released a joint statement expressing their dissatisfaction with the developments.

“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,” it 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.”

A senior source told The Independent: “What we are making clear is that we have not agreed to any of this.”

The newspaper groups are concerned about the powers of the new regulator to order front-page apologies and the lack of opportunity for the press to challenge appointments to the board of the new watchdog. There are concerns about the regulator’s arbitration service for civil legal claims which will be free to complainants and offer the chance of financial recompense.

Brian Cathcart, director of Hacked Off, said they were very pleased this draft of the Royal Charter has been accepted.”

Three Hacked Off members had attended the late-night discussions : Hugh Tomlinson QC, the former Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris and Brian Cathcart, a professor of journalism at Kingston University.

The new provisions will cover news-based websites – including the online editions of national newspapers and sites such as the Huffington Post – but not broadcasters’ websites. It will also exclude bloggers, tweeters and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter and small publishers of special interest and trade titles, said the Independent.

The Financial Times, The Independent and The Guardian – had previously said they would accept an element of statutory underpinning in a new self-regulatory system along the lines set out by Lord Justice Leveson.

Chris Blackhurst, editor of The Independent, said: “Given that some newspapers and their journalists behaved very badly over a number of years leading to the creation of a judicial inquiry by David Cameron, today’s outcome was always probable.

“Ideally we would not want any new regulatory system at all, but that was never going to happen. This isn’t perfect but neither is it terrible. I don’t see anything in it that will threaten the sort of journalism we produce at The Independent.”

The agreement was widely welcomed in the House of Commons yesterday.

But Douglas Carswell, the Tory MP for Clacton, attacked the proposals as a “disaster in the making” and said that Britain was setting a bad example to other countries around the world.

On his website, he said, “I grew up in a central African country run by various dictators who controlled the newspapers,” he wrote. “Perhaps that is why I find the idea of state regulation of the press in Britain so shocking.”

Sarah Wollaston, Tory MP for Totnes, said the Royal Charter proposal could be “something we may live to regret”.

One big area of disagreements whether the deal is underpinned by statute, as Ed Ball says it is - or not underpinned by statute as David Cameron insists.

The system will be inserted into law in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which certainly suggests "statute."

Newspapers that refuse to comply with the new structure will face a system of exemplary damages.

Kirsty Hughes , chief executive of the free speech campaign group Index on Censorship, criticised the impact on press freedom in the UK.

She said: "Index is against the introduction of a royal charter that determines the details of establishing a press regulator in the UK - the involvement of politicians undermines the fundamental principle that the press holds politicians to account."

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond is said to have been in touch with people in the South for guidance on whether the new deal would eliminate the need for a controversial set of Scotland-only proposals floated last week.

The prime minister, who last week opposed a charter underpinned by statute, insisted there was not statutory underpinning. in the new deal.

Cameron said, "What it is is simply a clause that says politicians can't fiddle with this so it takes it further away from politicians, which is actually, I think, a sensible step.

"What we wanted to avoid and we have avoided is a press law. Nowhere will it say what this body is, what it does, what it can't do, what the press can and can't do. That, quite rightly, is being kept out of parliament.

"So no statutory underpinning but a safeguard that says politicians can't in future fiddle with this arrangement."

However, Labour leader, Ed Miliband told the BBC: "What we have agreed is essentially the royal charter that Nick Clegg and I published on Friday. It will be underpinned by statute. Why is that important? Because it stops ministers or the press meddling with it, watering it down in the future.

"It will be a regulator, a system of complaints where the regulator has teeth so they can direct apologies if wrong is done and it is independent of the press, which is so important because for too long we have had a system where the press have been marking their own homework."

He added: "People who revealed MPs' expenses, people who revealed phone hacking, have nothing to fear from what has been agreed.

"I think a free press has nothing to fear from what has been agreed. This is about a press that doesn't abuse its own power and, if that power is abused, victims have a right to redress because, so often in the past when things went wrong – take the case of the McCanns – they felt they had nobody to turn to."

The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, claimed the deal was a victory for the Lib Dems and Labour.

He said: "I'm delighted that we've come to a cross-party agreement. I think it's essential that we do move forward with consensus on this. We'll see the details later. But it's pretty well exactly what I hoped for when I published the ideas alongside the Labour party last Friday."

Maria Miller, the culture secretary, insisted there was a clear acceptance by Labour and the Liberal Democrats that the prime minister's royal charter was the right way forward.

She said: "We will not have this extreme force of press law that we would have had otherwise. The clause will sit alongside the charter. It is a no-change clause; there is no statutory underpinning. It is simply stating there can be no change in the future. That is already incorporated in the charter."

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