The regional press today launched a last-ditch bid to make the Government reconsider its Royal Charter press regulation plan.
The Charter – which has cross-party backing – is due to come into force after the next meeting of the Privy Council on 8 May.
Thanks to a legislative amendment already agreed by Parliament, it will then be impossible to change the Charter without a two-thirds majority of both houses of Parliament.
The Charter will give legal backing to a new state-recognised press regulator which will include an arbitration arm for settling libel complaints. Publishers outside the regulator will be subject to exemplary damages and high costs in civil claims under an amendment to the Crime and Courts Bill which is currently going through Parliament.
Newspaper Society president David Newell has written to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg – who is Lord President of the Privy Council – urging him to delay ratifying the Royal Charter until there has been proper consultation with the regional press.
Newell said: “You are asking them [the regional press] to pay an unacceptably high price for a problem they did not create.
“Any approved regulator under the Charter would be required to comply with the 23 recognition criteria agreed by the three party leaders in consultation with Hacked Off, including an arbitration service which would be free to complainants and would inevitably open the floodgates to compensation claims and increased legal costs.
“Many of the claims which are currently resolved easily and without cost to either side would be converted into claims for money. This would place an exceptionally large financial burden on regional and local newspapers.”
Newell is concerned that the extra cost of funding the new regulator will also place a burden the regional press and suggested it would not be feasible for the regional press to set up its own regulator.
“If the local press were to set up its own regulator, it would have to carry on its own all the costs of setting up and maintaining the scheme, complying with all the recognition criteria including running a ‘free arbitration’ service. This would be considerably more expensive than being part of a single regulator. Further, a multiplicity of regulators would cause confusion in the minds of readers and would lead to a range of different codes and processes.”
He added: “Quite apart from the increased costs and regulatory burden placed on the regional press, this new system cannot be described as voluntary self regulation. The principle that a free press should not be subject to statutory underpinning would have been crossed…
“Britain’s 1100 regional and local newspapers have not been consulted on the March 18th draft Royal Charter proposals. DCMS officials have rejected calls by the industry to discuss the economic impact of the proposals on the regional and local newspaper industry and their impact on editorial and press freedoms and the freedom to publish.
“The industry would ask that the controversial draft proposals which cause so much concern to regional and local newspapers are not presented to the Queen before appropriate discussions and consultations take place. It is my understanding that you have a key role in this process as Lord President of the Privy Council.”