Newspapers in legal bid to stop press regulation charter

Newspapers The press wants a judicial review of a Privy Council decision to reject its proposed charter

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Newspaper and magazine publishers are seeking a last-minute injunction to stop the proposed royal charter on press regulation being approved.

At the High Court they argued that the Privy Council had not considered their proposed charter fairly or lawfully.

The Times's Roger Alton said earlier that the deal that had been "stitched up" by politicians and lobbyists "over pizza" would be resisted.

The row follows the phone-hacking affair and subsequent Leveson Inquiry.

Newspaper and magazine publishers fear the charter agreed by political parties means the end of a free press - which its supporters deny.

BBC media correspondent David Sillito said the charter proposed by the three main political parties was on the verge of approval after "months of wrangling".

The Press Standards Board of Finance (Pressbof), which raises money from the newspaper industry to fund the current regulator, the Press Complaints Commission, said the process had been unfair and wants a judicial review.

Opening the case for PressBof at the High Court on Wednesday, Richard Gordon QC told the judges the essence of the claim for judicial review was that the industry charter "has simply not been considered fairly".

Mr Gordon said: "We would add to that it has not been considered rationally and we would add to that it has not been considered lawfully.

"We submit the process of consideration of the press charter includes a number of elementary defects."

'Proper and fair'

Lord Black of Brentwood, chairman of Pressbof, previously said the decision to go to court had been made because of the "enormous ramifications for free speech" of the case.

Last week a newspaper industry source told the BBC he hoped the court action would put the politicians' plan on hold, but the government said it would push ahead.

Media commentator Steve Hewlett told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that what the newspapers were hoping to do now tactically was to induce delay.

"The whole point is if they can induce enough delay they hope that when Ipso (Independent Press Standards Organisation) - their self-regulator - is up and running, as time goes by the political pressure for further reform as we approach an election in 2015 will begin to evaporate.

"So to that extent it becomes a game of chicken, because they're gambling that no party will want to go into the election waving press reform, which may turn out not to be right."

Maria Miller told Parliament there must be a "fair system" of press regulation

Lawyers for Culture Secretary Maria Miller will oppose the legal challenge.

A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said the industry royal charter had been considered in "an entirely proper and fair way" and Mrs Miller had secured significant changes to the cross-party charter to address press concerns.

"The government is working to bring in a system of independent press self-regulation that will protect press freedom while offering real redress when mistakes are made," the spokesman said.

The rival royal charters are similar in some respects, with both proposing a "recognition panel" to oversee a press self-regulation committee with powers to impose fines of up to £1m on newspapers for wrongdoing.

But while the press charter would require industry-wide approval for any amendments, the politicians' version could be changed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament - and some in the media claim this could let governments encroach on press freedom.

Mr Alton - who is the executive editor of the Times - told the Today programme that Ipso would be an "extremely tough" regulator.

"You sign a contract into the regulator and you are liable for extremely severe fines," he said.

"The idea that somehow a deal stitched up between a few politicians over pizzas and a handful of lobbyists from Hacked Off, which is essentially an anti-newspaper group, the idea that such a deal is the thing that now controls the press, which is one of the most vital safeguards in our democracy, I find extraordinarily depressing, very sad ... It will be resisted."

Various forms of press regulation have been proposed following the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press, set up in the wake of revelations about phone hacking by journalists.

The Privy Council, whose active members must be government ministers, meets in private to formally advise the Queen to approve "Orders" which have already been agreed by ministers.

Royal charters are granted by the Privy Council to "bodies that work in the public interest" - in this case a proposed press regulator.

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