Lord Black: Government press regulation 'makes dodgy dossier look like magnificent item of statecraft'

Speech: Lord Black

Lord Black has confirmed he will step back from the Independent Press Standards Organisation once it launches, but said he will continue to oversee a legal challenge over the rejection of the industry’s alternative charter last year.

Speaking at the Scottish Newspaper Society's inaugural conference in Glasgow on Thursday, Lord Black gave a scathing condemnation of the government's handling of the Royal Charter and said the document made "the infamous dodgy dossier look like a magnificent piece of statecraft" in a reference to the Iraq war.

"We've always made clear to the government that we have been prepared to talk about ways to achieve the idea of some form of scrutiny for our new regulator, and talk we did for many months before a Royal Charter was imposed on us late one night, its terms dictated by an unrepresentative lobby group at a meeting accompanied by pizza and KitKats in the office of the leader of the opposition with no one from our industry present,” he said.

“What has happened is that politicians for the first time in three centuries have laid out how they expect the regulation of the press to be organised and they now have the tools to make that compulsory if they choose to do so.

“That involvement in the granular detail of content regulation and most importantly in how the code of practice is crafted and adopted could easily take politicians and governments to the heart of the newsroom and what you can and cannot publish. That for me is an incredibly chilling, authoritarian prospect.”

He added: “It is a document that was subject to no public consultation or proper Privy Council procedure. In short, it is a document that makes the infamous dodgy dossier look like a magnificent item of statecraft. It’s for all those reasons that we as an industry should not just have nothing to do with it, but fight it with vigour and determination.”

As reported earlier this week, Lord Black confirmed he would step back from the regulator after it launches - expected in early June - and would instead focus on tackling the "threats to our freedoms" from the UK government and the EU. However, he said he will continue to oversee a legal challenge from the industry over how its alternative charter proposal was handled.

“As you will recall that document was rejected back in October after a sham process of consultation,” he said. “That’s why we launched a judicial review into the way our Charter was rejected and it is a legal challenge we continue to prosecute with vigour.

“We always knew the court battle over the Charter would be complex and incredibly drawn out. I don’t think any of us directly involved however expected that at the very first hearing of that case it would be thrown out by two judges, who considered the evidence in private for just 15 minutes before delivering a verdict that took half an hour to read out. I’ll leave you to do the maths on that one.

“Nor indeed did we believe that in the second round we would be refused leave to appeal in a judicial edict that covered eight lines of typescript. I have to say there is no finer sight anywhere of the establishment closing ranks. We need to try and break those ranks apart.”

The case reaches its next stage on 30 April, when it goes to the court of appeal.

“It is a case that must be heard because in my view, and the view of many of those in the industry, it is absolutely fundamental to what a free society is all about,” Lord Black added, “because be in no doubt, this Charter introduces the state’s power into editorial content regulation, something which attacks the very foundation of press freedom.”

Lord Black told the conference that he had not applied to be on the board of Ipso, and would have no part in the Regulatory Funding Company, which will hold the purse strings of Ipso.

He said Ipso had received an "exceptionally high" sign up from publishers of over 90 per cent, and insisted the new regulator - despite staunch opposition from campaign groups like Hacked Off, which maintains that Ipso will be no different to the criticised outgoing Press Complaints Commission – will have more robust powers and ensure press regulation is kept separate from the interference of politicians.

The Financial Times is so far the only national title that has decided to go its own way, while the Guardian and Independent titles have not yet decided.

Lord Black addressed the conference shortly after directors of the Regulatory Funding Company were announced. Representing the magazine industry is Albert Read, deputy managing director of Condé Nast, and for the regional press Michael Gibson, editor of the Belfast Telegraph; Ashley Highfield, CEO of Johnston Press; Brian McCarthy, Archant group finance director; and Ellis Watson, DC Thomson chief executive.

Representing the national press will be Paul Ashcroft, group editorial director of Northern & Shell; Christopher Longcroft, chief financial officer at News UK; and Paul Vickers, group legal director at Trinity Mirror, and also chair of the Industry Implementation Group, which is responsible for setting up Ipso.

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