Hacked Off, the press reform group supported by Hugh Grant, is urging a series of reforms to the planned Royal Charter on newspaper regulation which it hopes will make the changes more acceptable to the media.
The controversial charter has been the subject of widespread criticism by newspapers and freedom of speech campaigners since it was thrashed out in late-night talks involving representatives of the three main parties earlier this month.
Critics have ranged from the biggest newspaper groups to the magazine sector, the regional press and bloggers and producers of news-based websites. The charter has also been the subject of negative comment from The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and freedom of speech organisations.
In an effort to build support for the charter, which is intended as a response to Lord Justice Leveson's proposals in his inquiry report published in November, Hacked Off has put forward amendments to legislation currently passing through Parliament. Among their measures, advanced on Hacked Off's behalf by parliamentarians such as the cross-bench peer Lord Skidelsky, is a call for responsible news organisations to be subject to "light touch regulation" by the Information Commissioner's Office. In a further amendment to the Crime and Courts Bill, due to be debated in the Lords last night, Hacked Off called for the means-testing of publishers who found themselves liable to the imposition of exemplary damages after having refused to join the new system. The amendment is also designed to protect bloggers and small websites.
During last night's debate Lord Black of Brentwood, the Conservative peer and executive director of the Telegraph Media Group, condemned the exemplary damages proposals as "wrong in principle". He added: "They were cobbled together late at night – over pizza and KitKats – with no thought for the legal and constitutional issues involved."
A number of high-profile news publications, including Private Eye, The Spectator and the New Statesman have already stated that they have no intention of signing up to the new regulator, despite the possibility of being subjected to exemplary damages in the courts.
Evan Harris, Hacked Off campaigner and former Liberal Democrat MP, said that exemplary damages would only be inflicted on publishers who engaged in "conduct of an outrageous nature" after having opted out. He said such damages should only be imposed on large publishers who had the means to pay. "This is designed to ensure that, for those people who are trying to make martyrs of themselves and do end up behaving outrageously, that it's a rather insipid and floppy martyrdom."
A further amendment supported by Hacked Off is designed to ensure that publishers who sign up to the new watchdog are not liable for their legal costs if complainants choose to take them to court rather than go before the regulator's arbitration system.
The group has found itself under attack after it emerged that several of its members were present when the Royal Charter was finalised at cross-party talks in the office of Ed Miliband. No representatives of the press attended. Only The Guardian, The Independent and the Financial Times have indicated a willingness to work with the Royal Charter, although all have expressed degrees of concern.