The revamped proposals for the Royal Charter to regulate the press have been criticised by members of the newspaper industry, with opponents saying the amended version was neither "voluntary nor independent".
On Friday, the three main political parties agreed on a series of amendments to establish a new system to oversee the press after initial proposals drafted by the newspaper industry were rejected by the government earlier this week.
The final version, announced by Maria Miller, brings to an end 11 months of debate and dispute since the publication of the Leveson Report, however, the industry steering group, responsible for the interests of both national and regional voices within the press, said they had had reservations about political oversight inherent within the proposals.
This latest and possibly final version is different to the proposals controversially agreed by the parties in March during a late-night meeting in Ed Miliband's office, attended by the lobby group Hacked Off. The main changes include:
- The arbitration system for complainants of press intrusion will not be free but potential claimants will have to pay a small fee, the amount of which will be set be the new regulator.
- The committee required to draw up the code of standards for journalists will be a combination of independent members and editors, and not, as the industry had advised, made up of a third independent members, a third serving journalists and a third editors.
One of the biggest points of contention was the arbitration system, with local newspapers claiming that no fee would encourage frivolous claims, which could drive them out of business. The updated version includes a fee and a drop out clause should the newspapers find themselves under financial strain.
The Culture Secretary said that she hoped for industry acceptance of the proposals; the steering group said it would certainly consider the updated version, yet in a statement made clear the unease the group felt over the regulation.
"This remains a charter written by politicians, imposed by politicians and controlled by politicians. It has not been approved by any of the newspapers or magazines it seeks to regulate," the steering group said in a statement.
"Meanwhile the industry's charter was rejected by eight politicians, meeting in secret, and chaired by the same politician who is promoting the politicians' charter.
"Lord Justice Leveson called for 'voluntary, independent self-regulation' of the press. It is impossible to see how a regulator operating under rules imposed by politicians, and enforced by draconian and discriminatory provisions for damages and costs in civil cases, could be said to be either voluntary or independent."
Professor Brian Cathcart, Hacked Off’s executive director, said: "This brings to an end eleven months of wrangling over Lord Justice Leveson's recommendations. We now look forward to better protection for the public from the kinds of abuses that made the Leveson Inquiry necessary."
"We note that in the last-minute technical changes to the charter there have been further concessions to the press industry lobby, notably that it now permits an administrative charge for members of the public to use the new arbitration service. This is not what Lord Justice Leveson recommended and may well deter some members of the public from seeking redress when they have been wronged by news publishers."
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The latest deal was struck at talks between Miller, Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman and senior Liberal Democrat peer Lord Wallace of Tankerness and will now go forward to the Privy Council for final agreement on October 30.
The changes include provision for a fee for use of a new arbitration service, intended to deter speculative claims, with the option for regional and local newspapers to opt out altogether following a trial period. They also agreed that serving editors can be involved in drawing up a new code of conduct for the press, to be approved by the independent regulator.
Miller told the BBC Radio 4 PM programme: "We have made really important changes which I think will make this charter work much better, safeguarding the freedom of the press and also importantly helping safeguard the future of our local press which so many of us value so much. We want to make sure that this works for the long-term."
Miller did not rule out the prospect of further changes, if they could be agreed by the political parties. "I am very clear that we have published a final draft today but if there are things that come forward which all three parties feel merit attention, then of course we'll be looking at that," she said.
However, she said they stood by the provision that once the charter had been agreed, it could be amended with the agreement of a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament, saying it provided an important safeguard for the press. "Without that lock it would actually be that a very small group of ministers without any debate at all could make changes to this charter. That's not something that I think is right. We need to make sure that this charter is put beyond politicians of any government, either now or in the future," she said.
However Chris Blackhurst, the group content director of The Independent and its sister titles, said there were concerns within the industry that it did not provide sufficient protection against further interference by politicians in the future. "We saw last week the way all the parties were united condemning the Daily Mail over Ralph Miliband and there is a feeling at large that it is possible that you could get two-thirds, so you could have politicians in the future re-writing this charter and for many in our industry that simply isn't on," he told the PM programme.
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He warned that it may prove impossible to get agreement on a single regulatory system which all the newspapers were prepared to sign up to. "It has really turned into a politicians versus the press battle now. I wish I knew where it would end. I hope we don't end up in a situation where we end up with an array of regulators. That would be completely baffling. It is not fair on the public. It was never the intention that this should happen," he said.
Hacked Off , which has led the campaign for tighter press regulation, said that with the latest concessions to the industry there was no longer any reason for newspapers not to sign up. "The way is now open to create a system of independent, effective press self-regulation that will benefit the public and poses no threat whatever to freedom of expression," said the group's executive director Brian Cathcart. "Ordinary people will have far better redress when things go wrong, and the charter will also benefit the industry, giving it a chance to rebuild trust and show its commitment to high standards.
"Victims of press abuse now look to the industry to embrace that opportunity and put behind them a shocking period in which, in the words of Lord Justice Leveson, some sections of the press all too often wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people."