Britain approves new press regulation system backed by royal charter
Independent press regulator could fine newspapers but not stop publication
Former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks leaves the Old Bailey courthouse in London. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters
A new system of press regulation in the United Kingdom has received approval from Queen Elizabeth after judges in the High Court and the Court of Appeal rejected last-minute challenges by fiercely opposed newspapers.
The decision came on a day when prosecutors began to lay out their case against former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks and former No 10 communications chief Andy Coulson, together with six others, on hacking charges in the Old Bailey.
Meanwhile, it emerged that former News of the World-hired private detective Glenn Mulcaire and three of its former senior editors have already pleaded guilty to conspiracy to hack telephone calls.
Under the system approved by the privy council, an independent press regulator would be set up with powers to investigate and fine newspapers, to force the publication of prominent apologies, but it would not have power to stop publication.
An ethics committee, which could have serving editors onboard, but not in the majority, would produce a code to govern the way journalists get information, that such information would be accurate and would respect the right to privacy. In addition, freedom of speech would be protected.
The conduct of the regulator would be monitored every three years by a supervisory “recognition panel”, which would ensure it was working properly and that newspapers were abiding by their pledges.
The board of the regulator would have a majority of independent members. Some journalists would be included, but not editors. The supervisory board would not have press representation.
If set up, it would offer arbitration where, for a small fee, complainants could seek a ruling – a cheaper system for the press, says the government. Those who refuse arbitration and opt for court first will face higher legal bills.
Equally, a newspaper refusing to be bound by a regulator subject to monitoring by a supervisor would face exemplary damages if it lose a case. Significantly, it could end up paying a complainant’s costs even if it won.
The supervisory board’s powers could be changed by two-thirds majorities in the House of Commons and House of Lords – a dangerous threat to freedom of speech, says the industry, but the charge is rejected as ludicrous by opponents.
However, in a bid to buy time, along with avoiding a short-term headache for the Conservatives in advance of the 2015 general election, the proposed regulator will not come into force until a year after the supervisory body is set up.
Associated Newspaper, which owns the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Telegraph and the Rupert Murdoch-controlled News UK group, which owns the London Times, have vowed to continue their legal battles
Campaign group Hacked Off, however, has said it will push some papers to break rank, thus kick-starting the clock for tougher court penalties against those titles refusing to accept the new regime.
Newspapers though pledge to set up their own regulator, overseen by a weaker supervisor that would include editors. The regulator would be able to investigate and levy fines of up to £1 million.
The powers of the newspapers-proposed supervisor would never be increased, while the regulator itself would be able to “require” the prominent display of corrections and apologies, but not to order them when a newspaper refused to comply.
Defending the proposal passed by the queen last night a media department spokesman said the royal charter-backed system had the support of all parties, it would protect freedom of the press , offer real redress when mistakes were made and avoid full statutory regulation that others have tried to impose.