EU unveils plans for 'independent media councils' to regulate media across Europe under a single set of rules


For some British newspapers there is only one prospect more alarming than MPs being involved in regulating the press - tough new laws and fines imposed from Brussels.

That prospect has emerged from the work of a little-known media panel which has been quietly working at the European Commission for more than a year to tighten up media laws across the 27 member states. The report could disrupt current plans to reform press regulation in Britain.

The High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism, established by the Dutch politician Neelie Kroes, a vice president of the European Commission, has filed a report which calls for new regulatory bodies to be established with strong powers to impose fines and demand written or broadcast apologies from miscreant media companies.

“All EU countries should have independent media councils with a politically and culturally balanced and socially diverse membership,” said the report which seeks to ensure the journalists and publishers across Europe act responsibly and do not abuse their positions.

“Such bodies would have competences to investigate complaints [and] should have real enforcement powers, such as the imposition of fines, orders for printed or broadcast apologies, or removal of journalistic status.”

The EC findings come at a critical moment in negotiations over the future regulation of the British press following the publication in November of Lord Justice Leveson’s report recommending the introduction of a new independent regulator with enhanced powers.

Those working on the model for the new British watchdog were unaware of developments in Brussels, which the Financial Times claimed yesterday “could supersede moves by British magazines and newspapers to introduce a new press regulator in the UK by the summer”.

One British industry source said: “If there is anything in this then the British Government should be taking legal advice – but we are working on the assumption that we are entitled to design our own regulator.”

The Brussels panel is chaired by the former president of Latvia Vaira Vike-Freiberga and includes the former German Justice Minister Herta Daubler-Gmelin and the British technology expert and author Ben Hammersley, was primarily established to harmonise media regulation across Europe.

Their report has been informed by the Leveson inquiry, which the panel said “offered overwhelming evidence” that self-regulation of the press could lead to “gross abuses of journalistic privileges, the breaking of elementary ethical standards, and even activities subject to the criminal code”.

The Government wants a new beefed up regulator to be set up by the newspaper industry without the underpinning in law that Leveson suggested.

The Brussels group was unimpressed by this resistance. “That judge Leveson’s recommendations should have been rejected out of hand by some politicians in high office, is not very reassuring,” it reported. “This resistance by itself underscores the urgent need for supervisory bodies that can and do act, instead of being supervisory in name only.”

Political parties are believed to be close to agreement over the method for establishing a verification body which would ensure the new independent regulator, being set up by the newspaper industry, acts according to Leveson principles. The Conservatives are hopeful of persuading the Liberal Democrats and Labour that this can be achieved through a Royal Charter and that the new watchdog can be given legal powers to order newspapers to pay costs and damages through an amendment to legislation, without the need for new statute.

Tonight the Department of Culture Media & Sport rejected the idea that Brussels might intervene in the plans to reform the British press. "We have no intention of allowing Europe to regulate the British press. We have been clear that, as set out in the Leveson report, we expect the British press industry to implement tough, independent, self-regulation, in adherence with the Leveson principles,” said a spokesperson.