A right royal confusion over press regulation

British newspaper industry reacts negatively to the three-party agreement on press regulation


Even the idea of a “royal charter” sounds almost quaint from this side of the Irish Sea but there’s been nothing genteel about the loud and mostly negative reaction from the British newspaper industry to the three-party agreement on press regulation announced by prime minister David Cameron on Monday.

The Leveson report recommended that a new way to regulate the press should be devised. Mr Cameron promised not to “cross the Rubicon” and legislate, which would have prompted accusations of curtailment of press freedom and political interference. Instead it hit upon the mechanism of a royal charter to establish the regulatory body. It effectively gives the new regulatory body statutory underpinning, and cannot be altered by political interference.

From some newspapers’ perspective, it represents an unacceptable shift in power: the industry, for example, will not be able to appoint or veto the regulator.

Furthermore the regulatory body will be able to “direct the nature, extent and placement of corrections and apologies”, raising the spectre for publishers and editors that, if a mistake happens in 72-point type on the front page, the correction may have to be in the same position and take up the same space.

Gerry and Kate McCann famously won a front-page apology and campaigned with Hacked Off – a influential lobby group made-up mostly of people who were proven during Leveson to have been victims of press intrusion and abuse.

Signing up to the charter is more by stick than carrot. Publishers who refuse may expose themselves to exemplary damages if they publish with “reckless disregard for the claimant’s rights”. And being saddled with potentially vast legal expenses might be the hook that reels in some of its most vocal critics.

Third parties will be able to make complaints. At present, only people who are directly affected by an unfair treatment or an inaccuracy can complain to the UK Press Complaints Commission.

It’s hard not to agree with Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times speaking on the BBC Radio Four lunchtime news programme on Tuesday, that it could lead to “claims farming” and “vexatious complaints that will tie us up in knots”. A large newspaper group might be able to afford such a complaints system but it could break an already struggling small local newspaper.

Breakaway regulator
Early negative reaction to the charter from the Daily Mail , the Telegraph and the Sun raised the difficult to imagine working possibility of a breakaway regulator – or even several.

The Independent and the Financial Times have reacted positively but most are consulting lawyers about what this statutory underpinning might ultimately mean.

Private Eye has said it will stay out and, on Tuesday, the Spectator magazine rejected the charter, calling it a “dog’s breakfast”.

Crucial aspects remain unclear, such as what power the regulator has over new media including blogs and tweets, and to what extent it confines itself to traditional media. Speaking at the Leveson enquiry in July, press ombudsman Prof John Horgan discussed the Irish model of regulation and advised that industry endorsement was “essential” for the success of a new press regulator. “It depends on the robustness of the measures that are put in place to ensure redress, and on the whole-heartedness of the endorsement and uptake of these by the newspaper industry themselves.”

They could prove prescient words.

According to Seamus Dooley, Irish secretary of the NUJ, “the big question – that cannot be answered yet – is what if the newspapers boycott it”.

He said the NUJ gave the royal charter “a guarded welcome” but would have preferred to have “got where we are in a consultative process”.

Leaving the newspapers outside the door while politicians hammered out an agreement has left the industry disinclined to lie down and accept the new rules, not without a fight anyway.

Speaking yesterday at the Advertising Week Europe conference Lord David Puttnam said: “The charter ticks most of the boxes,” but he added: “I don’t like the idea of a royal charter because it seems undemocratic.”

He predicted that, if newspapers don’t join, “they will be going head-to-head with parliament, with the regrettable result that the law will decide where press freedom begins and ends”.


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