Fleet Street editors are calling for a special charitable trust to be set up to oversee the new independent newspaper watchdog demanded by Lord Justice Leveson.
The proposal has been advanced by the newspaper industry to avoid political involvement in the regulation of the press and head off plans by the Policy Minister Oliver Letwin to create a watchdog with a verification body backed by Royal Charter and supported by legislation.
Editors from national and regional newspapers and magazines met representatives of all three main political parties at Downing Street yesterday, to discuss issues that are still hampering attempts to implement the proposals of the judge following his detailed report into the press in November.
Local newspapers are concerned at the potential effects of Leveson’s call for the regulator to have an arbitration service which would rule on reader complaints. The judge intended that such a system would be attractive to newspapers because it would reduce the number of libel actions and cut legal costs.
But some regional titles are worried that the new system, empowered to award damages, will encourage complainants who would never have considered going to court and will place a fresh financial burden on hard-pressed local publishers. There are concerns that small editorial teams on local titles will not be able to function if staff are frequently called away to attend arbitration hearings.
Some national titles are unhappy that the Leveson arbitration system would be able to impose “exemplary damages” for serious bad practice, and could allow third parties, including political activists and single issue pressure groups, to target papers for complaints whenever they write about particular subjects.
Concerns were raised by editors yesterday at a Downing Street meeting attended by Mr Letwin, the Culture Secretary Maria Miller, the Liberal Democrat peer and Advocate General for Scotland Lord Wallace of Tankerness, and the Shadow Culture Secretary Harriet Harman.
Five bills have now been drafted for implementing Leveson, including ones from Labour and the pressure group Hacked Off, which call for a regulator backed by statute. The newspapers, which are resisting any form of statutory regulation, are anxious that the code under which they operate is compiled by journalists, despite political pressure for it to be drawn up by an independent panel.
The industry is otherwise close to accepting Leveson’s recommendations. But problems remain over the status of the verification body that would monitor the regulator’s performance. Mr Letwin’s idea of a body enshrined by Royal Charter is unpopular, particularly as it would require statute, and has prompted the press to make the alternative suggestion of a charitable trust.
Earlier today, newspaper industry representatives held their own London meeting at which they moved closer to proposing a model for an independent watchdog that will replace the current Press Complaints Commission. In a statement after the meeting, Paul Vickers, group legal director of Trinity Mirror and chairman of the Industry Implementation Group, said: “The industry continues to make solid progress in establishing a tough, independent regulator that will protect the public and that is also compliant with Lord Justice Leveson’s principles.”