Most UK newspapers set to boycott new regulator
Culture secretary Maria Miller publishes agreement with an independent regulator
Hacked Off founder Brian Cathcart responds to culture secretary Maria Miller’s statement about press regulation
Britain’s three largest political parties have offered last-minute concessions to British newspaper groups to get them to agree to a new regulatory system but the majority are set to boycott it.
Under the agreement published last night by culture secretary Maria Miller, an independent regulator would be overseen by a recognition body – protected by a royal charter, such as the one enjoyed by the BBC – to ensure standards are kept.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats accepted that people should have to pay a small fee to take complaints to arbitration, while also accepting that editors should have a greater say in the drafting of the ethics code to govern the trade.
For now, however, much of the British press is refusing to sign up, saying they will continue with plans to set up their own regulator, backed by powers to fine offenders up to £1 million and to launch investigations into newspapers.
Under yesterday’s proposal, publishers who accept a regulator officially recognised by a royal charter-backed recognition body would be protected for claims for exemplary damages in libel and privacy claims.
In addition they would not have to pay legal costs even in cases they won – which is one of the penalties included in legislation passed in Westminster earlier this year that was intended as a carrot-and-stick measure to get newspapers on board.
The powers of the recognition body can be changed by two-thirds of the House of Commons and the House of Lords – a high hurdle, said the culture secretary, to protect press freedom, though much of the press argues otherwise.
The opposition to a regulator requiring the sanction of a royal charter-protected body is led by Associated Newspapers – which publishes the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday – the Rupert Murdoch-controlled News UK and the Telegraph Media Group.
The London Independent and the Evening Standard are understood to be better disposed towards the proposal. The Guardian’s attitude towards it has softened, while the Financial Times is more cautious but not opposed outright.
The difficulty for the strongest opponents, such as Associated, is that the tougher libel costs and exemplary damages rules come into force the minute an approved regulator with signed-up newspapers is established.
Campaign group Hacked Off, which has pushed for tougher regulation, is unhappy with the concessions offered to newspapers but appears prepared to accept them to get the new system up and running.
“The way is now open to create a system of independent, effective press self-regulation that will benefit the public and poses no threat whatever to freedom of expression,” said Brian Cathcart of Hacked Off.
Focusing on Westminster’s ability to change the powers of the recognition body with a two-thirds majority, Bob Satchwell of the Society of Editors said: “You either have a free press or you don’t have a free press; you can’t have a half-free press.”