Ian Burrell: The local papers that now live in fear of 'horrific bureaucracy'

Media Studies:
  • @iburrell

When we think of the victims of press abuses, the names that spring to mind are the likes of the actress Sienna Miller, the schoolteacher Chris Jefferies and, of course, the McCann and Dowler families.

The Royal Charter on press regulation, agreed by the three main political parties last week, has been seen as the measure which gave them a little revenge, by striking back at the newspapers which caused them so much distress. But in doing so it has created yet more innocent victims.

The hurt likely to be suffered by titles ranging from local weeklies, such as the Northampton Chronicle, to the homeless magazine The Big Issue and the children's paper First News, will not engender the same public sympathy as the personal sufferings of hacking victims but it could have critical consequences all the same.

As Britain's largest national newspaper groups went into a huddle with lawyers to prepare their response to a political settlement that has caused shock waves, it was the regional press which spoke most eloquently of the dangers.

The Chronicle set out its fears of the potentially catastrophic impact of plans to introduce a free arbitration system which will allow third-party complaints and financial recompense for errors. "The new proposals… will ultimately bring with them such horrific bureaucracy that there is a real risk that many editors will be submerged," it said. "Ultimately, anything contentious or remotely investigative will be open to such widespread challenge that our papers will be anaemic."

There was palpable anger in the words of Ian Murray, editor-in-chief of the Southampton-based Southern Daily Echo. "We have neither hacked into phones nor deliberately set out to deceive, compromise nor vilify, and yet we will be caught in this expensive, debilitating new regime, thought up by politicians and lawyers to impress the voters, curry favour with celebrities and let themselves off the hook."

Impress the voters? Two years before an election, political leaders who have courted the electorate by acting on the unquestionable current popular hostility toward the tabloid press may yet regret the clumsiness of their bartering.

It is not yet clear who has the most to lose. Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, who along with the campaign group Hacked Off were the principal architects of the deal, have made enemies in the local papers that can be so influential in marginal constituencies. Commenting on a "hole in 300 years of press freedom", the Devon-based Western Morning News said: "If Mr Clegg and Mr Miliband think that's a fair price for making David Cameron lose face, heaven help us." The Sheffield Star, which covers Mr Clegg's constituency, is also smarting. "The papers that will pay the price will be the trusted local press the length and breadth of Britain," it said.

But David Cameron may have lost out even more. He spent four months convincing the big newspaper groups that he understood their concerns, pledging not to cross a "Rubicon" of press statute. In the event, the stream was traversed while he was asleep. The Prime Minister woke up to claim victory for what Rupert Murdoch has denounced as a "holy mess". Murdoch's Wall Street Journal declared: "Thank heaven America escaped the controls of British Royal Charters and wrote the First Amendment."

The Royal Charter, which Mr Cameron hoped would be a get-out-of-jail-free card that enabled him to implement Lord Justice Leveson's proposals without recourse to law, has provoked the wrath of the four big Tory-supporting news organisations – the publishers of the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, The Times and the Daily Express. Some ally the Prime Minister turned out to be.

No one buys the claim that this is not statutory control of the press. The papers that have expressed willingness to work with the charter (though they have reservations) are The Independent, The Guardian and the Financial Times, the same titles that campaigned hardest to expose tabloid abuses. They indicated before the charter's publication that they would accept a small amount of statute in order to reform a system that had clearly failed.

Outside that small group there is nothing but opposition. Periodicals such as The Spectator, the New Statesman and Private Eye are all refusing to join the system. The Economist has denounced it as a "rotten deal" and a "shameful hash".

Barry McIlheney, the chief executive of the Professional Publishers Association, which represents the magazine sector, fears that his members will become innocent victims of a sorry muddle.

Attempts are being made to exempt specialist titles – such as Practical Fishkeeping and Plastics & Rubber Weekly – from the burdens of the new regulator. But in an era when most magazines are trying to stay relevant between issues by releasing content online, it's not clear why they should fall outside the charter's broad definitions of a professional news publisher. "We are a bit confused by a system which appears to have been knocked together at 3 o'clock in the morning," says McIlheney.

Some 20 months after the Leveson inquiry was announced, we have a shambolic situation. But at least no one could argue that the press and the politicians are in cahoots.

Men lose battle of sexes at 'Mail on Sunday'

Do you remember the great battle of the sexes? Hordes of women and an army of men, charging at each other across a medieval battlefield to protect the honour of their favourite newspaper supplements?

I'm referring to that epic commercial, choreographed by advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, for the 2007 launch of the Mail on Sunday's magazine Live, based on the premise that male and female reading habits are fundamentally different.

Well, the battle is over and the fairer sex is triumphant. Either that, or the concept was flawed. Because while the female-skewed You magazine remains vital to the Mail on Sunday, the blokey Live is soon to be no more. Replacing it from 14 April is the gender-neutral Event, dedicated to celebrity and culture.

Women readers might celebrate all the more for the Mail on Sunday having simultaneously appointed Fleet Street's first female sports editor – Alison Kervin.

Event is clearly a significant statement from editor Geordie Greig, allowing him to make use of social connections he developed editing Tatler and to mine a literary contacts book that includes the likes of Tom Wolfe and Salman Rushdie.

The Event editor Gordon Thomson was much-admired when at the helm of Time Out. Although the magazine has been designed to look good on tablets it's also a rare but welcome investment in the more tactile pleasures of print.

If Television Centre isn't closing, why all the tears?

"Insipid, incestuous self-gratification" was how one viewer expressed annoyance at the BBC's endless farewells to its Television Centre in London's White City.

After bidding goodbye to the building on the Six O'Clock News, the local news, the BBC News Channel and in a dozen articles on the BBC website, the corporation allowed itself one more tearful send-off to an old workplace in a dedicated documentary on BBC Four on Friday evening. The effect was like "forcing holiday photos on someone", said a viewer online.

The valedictory coverage would not seem so odd if TVC – with its distinctive "doughnut" courtyard – was being bulldozed but in fact BBC managers have issued instructions that they intend to maintain it for "continued television production".

The mighty Studio 1, (one of the biggest in Britain), is being refurbished along with Studios 2 and 3. They will then be available to programme-makers from both inside and outside the BBC.

Studio 6, upgraded for HD as recently as 2008 and Britain's first 3D-capable studio, is to become office space for BBC Worldwide, the broadcaster's commercial arm.

So put those hankies away.

Twitter: @iburrell