Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday urged the newspaper industry to sign up to a new system of regulation, which he said would preserve freedom of the press while protecting the vulnerable.
The proposed new system was agreed in a cross-party deal at 2.30am yesterday morning, after late-night talks which averted almost certain defeat for the Prime Minister in the House of Commons.
Setting out plans for a Royal Charter to back a new, tougher press regulator with the power to impose big fines and prominent apologies on errant newspapers, Mr Cameron told MPs that the proposals delivered on the recommendations of last year’s Leveson Report on press standards.
And the agreement was backed by the Hacked Off campaign, which said it believed the new system would produce a “genuinely independent” regulator to offer redress for press abuses.
However, there was a cautious response from elements of the press, with a joint statement signed by the Mail, Telegraph, News International and Northern and Shell, warning that there remained “several deeply contentious issues which have not yet been resolved with the industry” and making clear that they would not make an immediate response.
Despite their agreement, the parties continued to squabble over the legal status of the new system. In an emergency debate in the Commons, Mr Cameron insisted that the scheme did not “cross the Rubicon” of introducing a press law, which he said would open the door for future governments to suppress free speech. But Labour leader Ed Miliband maintained there was “statutory underpinning” for the Royal Charter, while Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg described it as “a Royal Charter protected by legislation”.
Mr Cameron made a number of concessions to secure the deal, dropping an effective veto for the industry over the new regulator’s membership and agreeing that the regulator should have the power to “direct” newspapers on the prominence of apologies and corrections.
Controversially, four members of Hacked Off were also present for the talks.
Tory sources said they had not known they would be there, but Labour insisted it would not “apologise for standing side by side with the victims” of press intrusion.
Under the deal, the Royal Charter will establish a panel to oversee the new system of press self-regulation and ensure that it is genuinely independent and effective. The charter does not require parliamentary approval, but two pieces of legislation are being passed to ensure that it functions as intended.
What are the proposals?
A Royal Charter will be put in place to establish an independent recognition body for a press regulator. An ‘official’ watchdog would have powers to “direct” publications to issue corrections and apologies, and impose million-pound fines. There will be a low-cost arbitration system for complaints, while legislation is being brought forward to allow the courts to award “exemplary” damages in civil cases involving publications that refuse to sign up.
How do the plans fit with Lord Justice Leveson’s conclusions?
When the judge reported in November, he said newspapers should continue to be self-regulated. But he insisted legislation was necessary to establish a recognition body that the public could have faith in. David Cameron rejected statutory underpinning, but both his Liberal Democrat deputy Nick Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband indicated they supported the idea. They have spent months trying to hammer out a compromise.
So who won the battle of wills?
The Tories made headway early on when the Lib Dems and Labour accepted the idea of using a Royal Charter rather than conventional law. The parties seemed close to an agreement on the mechanism. However, last week Mr Cameron abruptly pulled the plug on talks, saying the distance between them was to great to be bridged. That left the premier facing defeat in a Commons vote. That damaging prospect was avoided when a deal was struck in last-ditch negotiations overnight. But Mr Cameron was forced to make concessions in a few key areas, such as agreeing that the newspaper industry should not have a veto on appointments to the regulator.
What about the newspapers themselves?
While pressure group Hacked Off were represented in the final round of talks, it seems the press were not. Some publications have already suggested that any kind of statutory interference in regulation is not acceptable. If enough opt out, the new system may be seriously undermined.