BRITAIN’S political parties yesterday united to push through plans for a tough new press regulator that will have the power to fine news outlets up to £1m.
The Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour joined together to back legislation that will hand parliament control over the remit of a new press regulator.
The move was prompted by the phone hacking scandal at the now defunct News of the World.
The Prime Minister hailed yesterday’s deal – which will create a Royal Charter to oversee the new watchdog – as a fair way of implementing the principles of Lord Leveson’s press reform proposals.
But Index on Censorship’s CEO Kirsty Hughes said his decision to use legal measures to regulate the media means Britain “has abandoned a democratic principle”.
“In spite of David Cameron’s claims, there can be no doubt that what has been established is statute underpinning the press regulator. This introduces a layer of political control that is extremely undesirable,” she added.
The deal was agreed by Tory cabinet minister Oliver Letwin at 2.30am yesterday morning following all-night talks with Labour leader Ed Miliband, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, and members of the pro-Leveson Hacked Off campaign group.
The charter is set to be approved at the May meeting of the Privy Council.
A statement signed by leading newspaper groups – including the publishers of The Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Times and The Sun – said the proposed system contained “several deeply contentious issues”, raising the prospect that major outlets could decline to take part in the new system.
Courts will gain the power to award exemplary damages against publications that decline to take part in the new system, while outlets will have to provide a free arbitration service for complaints – raising the prospect of outlets paying an applicant’s costs, even if the claim of unfair treatment is not upheld.
Confusion remains as to how the new regulator will deal with those who decide not to join the new system, especially in relation to online news websites that do not produce physical publications.
Downing Street said the rules “are not designed” to affect blogs, even though many appear to meet the legislation’s definition of a UK-facing current affairs website. Number 10 claims sites such as the Huffington Post and consumer magazine Marie Claire will be regulated, while trade titles and social networks are exempt.
Paul Staines, the publisher of the Guido Fawkes political blog, last night told City A.M. that he would ignore the new regulator: “It’s a shambles done late at night. My site is hosted in California, are they going to send Royal Navy gunboats to pound my servers from Long Beach? There’s no way to enforce it.”
“It seems likely that some newspapers won’t join in and I’m betting on there being two regulators."
Other publications such as The Spectator and Private Eye have raised the prospect of not joining the new regulator on principle.
David Cameron had previously warned against “crossing the Rubicon” of writing press regulation into law but was forced to compromise after realising his party was heading a costly Commons defeat on the matter.
Leveson supporters had threatened to wreck forthcoming legislation until they got their way, threatening long-awaited bills on matters such as libel reform.
Despite their leader’s sudden about-turn, Tory MPs voiced their concerns about the proposals in the House of Commons.
Sarah Wollaston told members the proposals looked like a “coercive code” and suggested it would weaken investigative journalism.
“I would far rather have our two-fingers-to-the-establishment, slightly-out-of-control press, than a nervous press, a bankrupt press or a bland press,” she added.
Peter Lilley said: “I’m not sure today is the wonderful day that everyone is portraying it to be. I think it’s actually a very sad day, and I hope that we don’t live to regret this at some stage in the future.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg said it would be impossible to enforce the requirement for a two-thirds parliamentary majority before the Royal Charter can be altered: “This house cannot bind its successors.”