UK

Press regulation deal struck by parties

  • 18 March 2013
  • From the section UK
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A deal has been struck between the three main political parties on a new press regulation regime in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal.

An independent regulator will be set up by royal charter with powers to impose million pound fines on UK publishers and demand upfront apologies from them.

Party leaders told MPs the charter would preserve press freedom and protect victims of press intrusion.

Many of the major newspapers said they needed time to study the details.

Press reform campaign group Hacked Off has welcomed the deal.

It follows Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry into press ethics, which found that journalists had hacked thousands of phones. He called for a new, independent regulator backed by legislation designed to assess whether it is doing its job properly.

'Without delay'

Prime Minister David Cameron said the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour had agreed on a new system of "tough independent self-regulation that will deliver for victims and meet the principles set out in (Leveson's) report".

He said a new system would ensure:

  • upfront apologies from the press to victims
  • fines of 1% of turnover for publishers, up to £1m
  • a self-regulatory body with independent appointments and funding
  • a robust standards code
  • a free arbitration service for victims
  • a speedy complaints system

The charter defines publishers as newspapers, magazines or websites containing news-related material.

But there was confusion over how the plans would extend to the rest of the internet - with one Downing Street aide telling the BBC it would not cover blogs such as Guido Fawkes' political commentary.

While the charter is intended to cover organisations publishing in the UK, the Scottish government has asked Westminster to clarify the Scottish impact of plans for press regulation, which is a devolved matter.

Announcing the draft royal charter, Mr Cameron told MPs: "What happened to the Dowlers, to the McCanns, to Christopher Jeffries and to many other innocent people who've never sought the limelight was utterly despicable.

"It is right that we put in place a new system of press regulation to ensure such appalling acts can never happen again. We should do this without any further delay."

Labour leader Ed Miliband said the agreement satisfied the demands of protection for victims and freedom of the press.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said he hoped newspaper groups would see the logic of the deal and back it.

The charter will not be passed by MPs, but will need to be approved at the May meeting of the Queen's Privy Council - advisers to the Queen, mostly comprising senior politicians.

Meanwhile, a clause in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which will mean that the charter cannot be amended without a two-thirds majority in Parliament, was approved in the Lords on Tuesday evening.

And a separate bill, the Crime and Courts Bill, will have amendments ensuring that newspapers who refused to join the new regulatory regime would be potentially liable for exemplary damages if a claim was upheld against them.

The three main parties differed over whether this amounted to bringing in a new law.

Mr Cameron said a press law had been avoided - although he conceded the clauses were "two very important but relatively small legislative changes" that needed to be made.

Mr Miliband said there was statute underpinning the charter, "which is actually protecting it from being changed".

BBC political editor Nick Robinson said the press had been informed over the days and months of wrangling, with key players being Telegraph's Lord Black, Associated Newspapers' Peter Wright, the editor of the Times John Witherow and the editor of the FT Lionel Barber.

'Deeply contentious'

In a joint statement, the Mail and Telegraph groups, Northern and Shell, News International, the Newspaper Society and the Professional Publishers Association said the industry had not been represented in Sunday night's talks.

It said early drafts of the charter had contained "several deeply contentious issues" which had not been "resolved with the industry".

"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," the statement concluded.

The Sun and others have previously said they would accept everything recommended by Lord Justice Leveson - except statutory legislation.

Evan Harris of campaign group Hacked Off was at the overnight talks with three other pressure group members. The group later said it believed the deal "can effectively deliver" Lord Justice Leveson's recommendations.

But the idea of a charter was criticised by free speech campaign group Index on Censorship. Chief executive Kirsty Hughes said the decision was a "sad day for 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."

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