Well, at least the politicians seemed to like it. Announced on Monday morning after negotiations between parties reportedly concluded as late as 2:30am, the first serious press regulation plan post-Leveson was greeted with aplomb by the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour alike. But what is it, what does it mean, and what happens next?
Fundamentally, the ideas behind the plan are quite simple. A royal charter will be established containing rules for the setting up of a “recognition panel”, which in turn will create the regulatory body and choose who sits on it. The charter will contain suggestions for the way the regulatory body should work, but leave the details yet to be decided. Membership of the regulator will be voluntary, but newspapers that refuse to join will leave themselves open to higher-than-normal “exemplary damages” for libel cases in the courts. Papers that do sign up will be rewarded with lower damages but will have to listen to the body when it imposes fines (of up to £1m) or demands prominent corrections.
As cross-party compromises go, this one is not the worst. Building the regulator’s foundations into a royal charter – normally reserved for establishing cities, universities and corporations such as the East India Company or the BBC – is a clever way of avoiding a press law, which the Conservatives (and press) would never have settled for. There is a very small amount of statutory underpinning in the form of a clause in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform bill, but only enough to say that future parliaments will require a two-thirds majority in both houses to amend a charter. (Of course, future parliaments could simply overturn this clause – but politicians don’t like to focus on the little details.)
Reactions from the press itself have been mixed. Some were tentatively positive; the Guardian quotes its editor, Alan Rusbridger, as saying: “The agreed terms are not ideal but after two years of inquiry and debate we finally have the prospect of what the public wants – a robust regulator that is independent of both press and politics. It’s a big improvement on what went before.” Similarly, Independent editor Chris Blackhurst said: “This isn’t perfect but neither is it terrible. I don’t see anything in it that will threaten the sort of journalism we produce at The Independent.” The Financial Times has also given cautious welcome.
On the other hand, large parts of the industry remain firmly opposed. News International (which publishes the Times and the Sun), the Telegraph Media Group, the Daily Mail Group and others released a joint statement on Monday afternoon: “We have only late this afternoon seen the Royal Charter that the political parties have agreed between themselves and, more pertinently, the recognition criteria, early drafts of which contained several deeply contentious issues which have not yet been resolved with the industry.” These groups have already mooted setting up their own regulator or taking any exemplary damages to the European courts (the Convention on Human Rights guarantees freedom of speech, which some believe the damages could infringe upon).
There is some not inconsiderable confusion about which types of publishing will be covered by the new regulator, particularly when it comes to the web. Culture secretary Maria Miller said “small-scale bloggers” would not be affected, nor would “student and not-for-profit community newspapers” or scientific journals. But there has been little mention of Twitter or other social media, and the exact rules are hazy at best (and contrary to Miller’s statement at worst) when it comes to online publications. No. 10 said the Huffington Post would be included, yet Guido Fawkes – a widely-read political blog that regularly breaks news – would not. In other words, no one really knows.
What happens next? With most of parliament behind it the royal charter will almost certainly come to pass, and then the process of setting up the regulatory body can begin. The Guardian, Independent and FT will probably sign up, as will others. Smaller regional papers, afraid of potentially catastrophic exemplary damages, will have little choice. The real test will be whether the Times, Telegraph, Mail & co. agree to join in. For all the high-and-mighty ideology, it seems unlikely that the new regulator will impinge upon free speech or at all hamper the effectiveness of the press. Indeed, in this author’s opinion it will have very little impact whatsoever on the status quo. The process may well fall apart of its own accord. But we have seen what the public want to at least attempt. Will the media acquiesce?
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