Belfast Telegraph

Why media should revolt if statutory control is imposed

By Paul Connolly

The long battle between Press and Government over statutory regulation would appear to be reaching some kind of finale.

The Government, backed by Labour, has given itself until today to revise parliament's Royal Charter on Press regulation.

It will then ask the industry to sign up to the new system ahead of an official sealing at the Privy Council on October 30.

Storm clouds are already gathering. On the Press side, some national publishers are signalling that they will not join a state-sponsored regulatory body, whatever Government says. As the editor of The Times signalled on Wednesday, parts of the national media may push ahead with the creation of an Independent Press Standards body.

This has two difficulties: firstly, the public, and in particular the anti-Murdoch Left, may well see it as a toothless sop to the tabloids.

Actually, that won't be the case. The proposed new body has serious teeth, including the ability to fine newspapers £1m. No newspaper can afford to ignore the financial cost and public opprobrium that this would bring.

The other problem will be timing. The biggest of the red-top phone-hacking trials is due to begin on October 28. Now, the defendants, including former News International chief executive Rebecca Wade, are, of course, totally innocent until proven guilty.

But we can be sure that the evidence put forward by the prosecution in its attempts to secure convictions will mean the industry is operating in a negative PR climate (even though public comment during the trial will be limited by contempt of court laws).

On the PR back foot at a key stage in a critical campaign is not a good place to be.

Nevertheless, barring some last-minute surprise concessions from the Government side, it is highly unlikely there will be a breakthrough. This means the Privy Council might not endorse the media's Royal Charter and, instead, endorse the Government's one.

That will not be the end of the matter. Some have forecast the Privy Council – an arcane, almost medieval body unique to the UK's constitutional arrangement – will not wish to send such contentious legislation to the Queen, potentially thrusting Her Majesty centre-stage in a constitutional controversy. Or, at the very least, into one large and very unedifying political row.

Whatever happens, I'd expect legal manoeuvring from either Hacked Off, or the media. If the Government's Royal Charter goes ahead, expect an appeal to the Supreme Court and possibly to Europe as well, not least over exemplary damages and forcing newspapers that win defamation cases to pay their own costs.

At the end of the day, there may well be a Press rebellion.

We are innocent of all hacking allegations, but have had collective punishment inflicted on us for the sins of a few.

Inside the Westminster bubble, 'the Press' means the national Press and to hell with collateral damage to the regional media.

So we, the regional industry, should repay the politicians' consideration: all newspapers should join a boycott of statutory regulation if push comes to shove and throw their lot in with the independent body, which, by the way, actually ticks all the key Leveson boxes, except the one marked statutory regulation.

A new 'voluntary' system can't be voluntary if the people joining it are coerced into doing so.

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