UK government rejects industry proposal for press regulation

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Maria Miller announced the rejection of the newspaper industry's proposals in Parliament Tuesday.
Image: Work and Pensions Office.

The British government have rejected a proposed plan for press self-regulation from a group of newspaper publishers and have said they intend to proceed with a Royal Charter supported by the three main political parties. The culture secretary Maria Miller said Tuesday in the House of Commons the proposal by the newspaper industry failed to implement fundamental parts of the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry into behaviour and ethical standards of the press last year.

Miller announced the final draft of the Charter will become availble on Friday following revisions by the political parties, and will be discussed by the Privy Council on October 30. The proposals offered by the newspapers and the government differ on implementation details on the regulator that would replace the Press Complaints Commission. The newspapers wish to allow former editors of newspapers to serve on the "recognition panel" which would supervise the operation of the regulator while the government wishes to forbid former editors. The government wish to prevent serving newspaper editors from being on the appointments committee for the regulator while the press proposal seeks to require one of the four members of the committee to represent the press industry.

The government proposal seeks to make it so the Royal Charter can be amended by Parliament, with a two-thirds majority from both houses, while the press proposal gives industry trade bodies a say on changes to the Charter. In both proposals, an arbitration service would be provided as an alternative to going to court, but the government wishes to make the arbitration service free for claimants while the newspapers want it to be "inexpensive" because they believe free arbitration could lead to a rush in claims going to arbitration. Both proposals would allow the regulator to fine the industry up to £1 million and demand the prominent publication of corrections and apologies to news stories.

The Hacked Off campaign welcomed the rejection of the industry proposals. A spokesman described the proposals as "a wrecking manouevre by unrepentant sections of the press trying to avoid accountability and carry on with a broken system of press regulation" but condemned the delays in implementation: "Ten months after the publication of the Leveson Report and seven months after all parties in parliament endorsed its recommendations in a Royal Charter, there can be no legitimate excuse for yet another delay."

Hacked Off was formed following the revelations in 2011 that journalists working for the Sunday tabloid News of the World hacked into the voicemail of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

The newspaper industry continue to express concern regarding the proposals. Trevor Kavanagh, a columnist for the Sun, said that the "major issue here is keeping the freedom of the press out of the sticky fingers of the politicians who want to control it".

Kirsty Hughes from Index on Censorship said: "Establishing press regulation by royal charter could allow politicians to interfere in press regulation and threaten media freedom in the UK."

Movie actor Hugh Grant, a director of Hacked Off, rejected criticism of the charter from the press, arguing the press object to the system because "when the press gets things wrong and harms people unfairly, the charter system will give those people a much better chance of redress. It will provide free or at least very cheap arbitration, instead of requiring people whose rights have been breached to pay mountainous high court legal bills. And it will provide a free, independent complaints service in the case of breaches of the industry code of standards."

Grant goes on to argue that the press have attempted to reform the "old, discredited" Press Complaints Commission which Lord Leveson had found not fit for purpose. Instead, he argues, the press should welcome the new regulator as a protection from libel as joining in means "their journalists will have better protection from legal bullying by corporations and oligarchs. Because litigants are pushed towards cheap arbitration it will no longer be possible for the very wealthy to gag reporters simply by threatening high court actions. The court costs would fall to the libel bully."