Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Papers to continue charter battle

Publishers want to mount a legal challenge over a decision to reject their proposals for a new royal charter to govern the regulation of the press

Newspapers and magazines are set to carry on their fight after a last ditch attempt to block a new Royal Charter governing the regulation of the press was rejected by the courts.

The Privy Council, meeting tonight at Buckingham Palace, formally granted the charter - backed by the three main political parties - after the Court of Appeal threw out an application by the industry for an emergency injunction.

The Government insisted the charter - sealed by the Queen - offered the press the best alternative to a system of full statutory regulation.

But industry sources indicated that a full appeal would be lodged within the next seven days against refusal of the High Court to grant a judicial review of a previous Privy Council decision to reject an alternative charter put forward by the industry itself.

Even if that appeal fails, it is clear some publications will simply refuse to sign up to a system underpinned by the politicians' charter, despite threat of exemplary damages in any court action they are involved in if they do not.

The editor of The Daily Telegraph, Tony Gallagher, wrote on his Twitter feed: "Chances of us signing up for state interference:zero."

The charter establishes a new recognition body which is intended to oversee a powerful new regulator set up by the industry with the power to levy fines of up to £1 million.

In a joint statement statement the Newspaper Society, the Newspaper Publishers Association, the Scottish Newspaper Society and the Professional Publishers Association, said they were "deeply disappointed" with the rulings by the courts.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport acknowledged that questions remained as to how the new system would work in practice and that it would continue to seek to work with the industry.

"A Royal Charter will protect freedom of the press whilst offering real redress when mistakes are made. Importantly, it is the best way of resisting full statutory regulation that others have tried to impose," a spokesman said.

The announcement that the Privy Council had granted the charter - at meeting attended by four ministers: Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary Maria Miller, the Liberal Democrat justice minister, Lord McNally of Blackpool - came at the end of a day of high drama in the courts.

After the High Court rejected an application by newspaper and magazine for an injunction and judicial review, the industry then applied for an emergency injunction at the Court of Appeal.

But at 4.45pm - just 45 minutes before the Privy Council was due to meet - the news came that Lord Dyson, Master of the Rolls, sitting with two other Court of Appeal judges, had refused.

Meanwhile, the Government announced a final flurry of amendments in an attempt to allay industry concerns.

They included a requirement that any future changes to the charter would require the unanimous agreement of the recognition body's board as well as a two thirds majority of both Houses of Parliament.

Government sources said the amendment was intended to address newspaper fears of political meddling.

Hacked Off, the lobby group which has led the campaign for tighter regulation, welcomed the announcement, saying it would enable the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry into press standards to be implemented.

"News publishers now have a great opportunity to join a scheme that will not only give the public better protection from press abuses, but will also uphold freedom of expression, protect investigative journalism and benefit papers financially," a spokesman said.

"We urge them to take this opportunity. It is what the inquiry recommended, what the public and the victims of press abuse expect, and what all parties in Parliament have united behind.

"The press should seize the chance to show the public they do not fear being held to decent ethical standards, and that they are proud to be accountable to the people they write for and about."

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: "This is disappointing and it is a pity the Queen has been brought into controversy. Royal charters are usually granted to those who ask for one - not forced upon an industry or group that doesn't want it.

"The important thing is that the press has moved a long way to create a robust new regulator by next spring, taking on board Lord Justice Leveson's recommendations including £1 million fines, orders to make corrections, investigative powers and an independent board with no serving editors in the regulatory system.

"Those who seem to want to neuter the press forget that there are 20 national papers, 1,100 regional and local papers and hundreds of magazines who have not done any wrong but they are willing to submit themselves to the scrutiny of the most powerful regulator in the Western world, so long as it is independent of politicians now and in the future."

In a leader article, The Daily Telegraph said it would not endorse the Royal Charter and would "continue to fight" the imposition of political control.

The late changes left open the possibility "that politicians could conspire to attack the press" - a scenario that recent events showed was not unimaginable, it suggested.

"The Guardian's recent investigation into state spying is exactly the kind of reporting that could spark a moral panic among politicians and give them cause to limit what the press can publish.

"If Parliament can find the numbers to impose a royal charter upon the industry, it can also find the numbers necessary to censor it.

"It is, therefore, unsurprising that publishers are refusing to endorse the Royal Charter - or that The Daily Telegraph is among them."

The consequence of MPs and campaigners forcing the three main parties into drawing up the Charter was "forcing the Queen to put her signature on a deeply controversial document", it went on.

The industry's "sensible" alternative charter would still ensure "the toughest regulation of its kind in the Western world, but would also keep the press free of parliamentary control", the newspaper said.

"But our goodwill and patient effort have been in vain. Attempts to seek an injunction stopping the charter from being brought to the Privy Council have failed, and it has been hard to obtain a fair hearing for our constitutional case. Nevertheless, we will continue to fight."

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