Government proposals for a statute-backed system of press regulation are in danger of unravelling into a complete mess.
The Royal Charter setting out the detail of the new system of press regulation is set to go to the Queen for approval at the next meeting of the Privy Council on 8 May accompanied by a direct appeal from the UK’s 1,000 or so local newspaper titles for it to be delayed.
They fear the libel arbitration arm of the new regulator would be cripplingly expensive for titles where libel payouts are normally extremely rare.
And in any case they are angry that they are almost certain to face increased fees overall for the new highly complex system of regulation – paying the price for Fleet Street excesses which they were entirely innocent of.
Now, as the legislative backing for the Royal Charter – an exemplary damages regime for non-members of the system – reaches the final quickfire Ping Pong stage between Commons and Lords, local papers are facing further discrimination.
Bloggers with turnovers of less than £2 million, or fewer then 10 employees, look set to be exempt from the exemplary damages threat (so without an incentive to join the new press regulator) under a new amendment to the Crime and Courts bill.
The growing list of exempt publications includes trade titles (presumably such as Press Gazette) and specialist titles such as the British Medical Journal.
The exemption for bloggers would cover just about every blog in the country – including Guido Fawkes.
I have to wonder quite what the point would be the point of a new system of press regulation which does not seek to cover one of the most popular, spiky and controversial blogs in the country. Unless the new regulatory regime seeks to create a level playing field for new and old media it will be seen by Fleet Street as being more about a vindictive settling of scores than about trying to create a system of press regulation fit for the digital era.
This idea of “catching” the big old-media players in the new system of press regulation (this is now the DCMS put it) takes us a long way away from the encouraging-consensus around change which had grown up in up the weeks after Leveson late last year.
It had been agreed by all that professional journalism had to have a greater emphasis on ethical standards in the wake of the hacking scandal – and that a reformed regulator was needed to make sure that happened.
Parliament’s actions since the cross-party deal with Hacked Off last month have succeeded in fracturing that consensus, possibly irrevocably.
If there is a mass revolt from publishers against the state-imposed press regulation system there are big questions over whether the exemplary damages 'stick' could be legally enforced. The Government would be left with the prospect of somehow enforcing full-on state control of the media.
As the Parliamentary muddle over who is in and who’s out of the regulator continues, it is becoming increasingly clear that (in the online age particularly) you can’t regulate a citizen’s basic right to express themselves. Not if you believe in upholding the basic tenets of Western democracy anyway.
What is needed is a consensus approach where the Government supports industry efforts to create a genuinely Leveson-compliant regulator (as promised) and the press industry opens up the process to assure press “victims” and others that the excesses of the past are being addressed.
Any efforts to force a reluctant press into joining a regulator which publishers fundamentally disagree with won’t work.
While seeking to address the extreme wrongdoing at the News of the World (and, to a lesser extent, at other national newspaper titles) MPs have lost site of the basic point of having a press regulator.
Ordinary members of the public who feel they have been wronged by journalists need an impartial mediator who can hear complaints and negotiate remedial action on their behalf.
What is needed is a new voluntary regulator which bloggers will want to sign up to so that they can proclaim themselves as a source of trusted journalism. We are in danger of ending up with a tarnished state-imposed system which bloggers and others will proudly defy.