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Deadlock over press reforms

The Government and the newspapers remain deadlocked after the industry reacted coldly to the latest proposals to establish a new system of press regulation.

The three main political parties meeting at Westminster agreed a series of changes to the draft royal charter establishing the new system intended to make it more palatable to critics in the industry.

Culture Secretary Maria Miller said the amendments would help safeguard press freedom and urged the newspapers to sign up, putting an end to 11 months of wrangling since the publication of the Leveson report on press standards.

However an industry steering group, representing national regional and local newspapers, said that while they would look closely at the changes, their fundamental objections had not been addressed.

"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," it said.

"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."

The steering group statement increases the prospect that a significant section of the press could simply go ahead with its own system of self-regulation, despite the threat of exemplary damages in any legal action newspapers are involved in if they remain outside the official system.

There also remains the option of legal action over the decision earlier this week by the Privy Council to reject a rival royal charter put forward by the industry, raising the prospect of many more months without agreement.

The latest text - amending the charter agreed last March in late night talks with the parties and the Hacked Off campaign group - will now go forward for final approval by the Privy Council on October 30.

The changes include provision for a "small" 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.

Mrs 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 told the BBC Radio 4 PM programme.

However Harriet Harman, who represented Labour at the talks, said the press should drop their objections and engage with the new system.

"We must have no press boycott," she said."The charter meets the principles set out by Lord Justice Leveson which were unanimously supported in Parliament."

A key area of concern remains a provision in the charter - originally intended as a safeguard for the press - which would enable it to be amended in future with the agreement of a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament.

Mrs Miller said: "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."

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.

Bob Satchwell, the executive director of the Society of Editors, said: "What editors are concerned about certainly is that you can't have even the smallest loophole which will allow for the future when there is another great row between politicians and the press for the politicians to bring in some really draconian system of licensing of newspapers."

Mr Blackhurst 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.

The Hacked Off lobby group, 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.

"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."


From Belfast Telegraph