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UK Politics

MPs hopeful of a 'halfway' deal on press regulation

'Tough new system' falls short of a recommendation for establishment of independent regulatory body underpinned by statute

David Cameron's blueprint for a new system of press regulation in Britain was has been attacked from all sides ahead of crucial all-party talks on how to combat journalistic malpractice.

The Conservatives' Liberal Democrat coalition partners warned that agreement on a Royal Charter to regulate the press was still "a million miles away" and Labour said the proposals "failed this test" of creating an independent system.

Victims of phone hacking also rejected the Charter plan as "a surrender to press pressure", while the newspaper industry warned parts of the proposals would breach European law. But despite the strong public criticisms behind the scenes there were signs that a compromise was still possible.

Privately senior Liberal Democrat and Labour sources said they were "hopeful" a deal was in sight. One source involved in the talks said the public opposition mainly represented posturing and that a "half way meeting" was likely.

Under the plans, a new press regulator – which would monitor the news websites as well as newspapers – would be overseen by a "Recognition Panel" to guarantee that the watchdog fulfilled its functions properly. The panel would be set up by Royal Charter and would contain between four and eight people, none of whom could have served as a current or former editor.

Conservatives said the Royal Charter – which could only be overturned by a two thirds majority of MPs - would enshrine the independence of the press and avoid the need for legislation, which is a key concern of the industry.

At the same time Britain's defamation laws would be changed to encourage newspapers to sign up to the plan – with exemplary libel damages and costs for news organisations not taking part.

The new press regulator would have the powers to fine newspapers up to £1million, order corrections and include an independent arbitration panel to resolve complaints without the need to go to court.

But the body representing the newspaper industry warned that the plan for exemplary damages was "unnecessary, unjust and against European law". It added that overall it had "grave reservations" about the plan.

Liberal Democrats, Labour and the campaign group Hacked Off also attacked it – but from the opposite perspective. John Leech, the Liberal Democrat backbench culture spokesman said: "It looks like from what the Tories are now putting forward that consensus cannot possibly be met. We are a million miles away at the moment."

Labour's deputy leader Harriet Harman added: "We have substantive concerns that the Royal Charter as drafted fails to comply with the recommendations that the Leveson Report makes. I don't believe it would be right to proceed with a proposal which offers less than the independence and stability recommended by Leveson."

Hacked Off, which wants complete implementation of Lord Justice Leveson's recommendation, including a statutory basis for any regulatory body, said the Charter "proposes ditching or watering down almost every one of the Leveson recommendations that is inconvenient to editors and proprietors".

"It is clear to us that Conservative ministers have a choice between safeguarding the public and safeguarding the press and they have chosen to safeguard the press," said director Brian Cathcart. Gerry McCann, who was paid damages by several newspapers over the reporting of the case of his missing daughter Madeleine McCann added: "The Conservative Party can't rewrite Leveson now; they must think again."

But the Culture Secretary Maria Miller said the proposals would allow the Leveson principles to be "implemented swiftly". She said: "It would see the toughest press regulation this country has ever seen, without compromising press freedom."

All three parties will meet tomorrow to discuss a way forward and despite the public hostility in private senior aides suggested compromise was still possible.

"We have always been prepared to be open-minded about a Royal Charter," said a Labour source. "Our concern is to get something that is cross party and durable."

Q&A: Why a Royal Charter, and what would it mean for the media?

Q. So what are the Conservatives recommending?

The essence of the Tory plan is to create a new body called a “ Recognition Panel” that would oversee and approve a new independent press complaints regulator.

The Recognition Panel would get its powers by Royal Charter – an ancient device which creates a legal entity but does not need legislation to enact. Existing bodies set up by Royal Charter include the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford.

Q. Why do we need a Royal Charter?

At the crux of the row over Leveson is whether or not the press should be regulated by Parliament. The Tories say that were the press to be regulated by law it would allow MPs to tinker or amend legislation – potentially damaging free speech and eroding a free press.

To get round this they are proposing to use a Royal Charter to constitute the new body. If agreed, it could only be annulled with the agreement of all three main party leaders and a vote in favour by two thirds of MPs. This would be a constitutional first for the UK.

Q. What would the new Recognition Panel do?

It would be responsible for approving and itself regulating any new independent press complaints regulator. The documents published alongside the draft Royal Charter lay out the minimum standards expected of such a new press complaints body which the Panel would have to ensure they complied with. This includes the power to levy fines against newspapers, carry out investigations into newspaper practices, order investigations and set up a legally binding arbitration service as an alternative to defamation actions. Crucially, the Panel would have the power to suspend any regulator if it felt it was not doing its job correctly.

Q. Which publications would be covered by the new scheme?

No publication would be bound to join any new press regulator and could not be compelled to do so. But the Government is proposing changes to the Defamation Bill currently going through Parliament that would mean any printed news organisation not signing up could face exemplary damages and costs against them – even if they won a libel action – if they chose to remain outside the new system. Interestingly, this would cover “a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a newspaper or magazine)”. This would appear to address the criticism of Leveson that he was regulating a declining industry – and not websites now used by millions of people.

Q. What do the critics say?

There are two main criticisms of the plans. The first is a Royal Charter would be no better than statute at maintaining the freedom of the press. The Lib Dems point out while the Government says the Charter would need a two thirds Parliamentary majority to be overturned, in practice this is not true.

This is because Royal Charters are regulated by the Privy Council (an ancient – and mainly symbolic - body of 600 people appointed to advise the Queen). Under the law, the Privy Council cannot bind future generations, who would thus be able to change the Charter at a whim. “It’s not worth the paper it’s written on,” said one Lib Dem of the proposals. The other, less anachronistic, criticism of the Conservative plans is that some of Leveson’s recommendations appear to have been quietly dropped in detail of the proposals.

For example, Leveson said the new arbitration service should be free for members of the public, while the Charter says it should be “inexpensive”. This means that a regulator will be allowed to charge victims for using an arbitration service. It also gives discretion to the new press regulator to reject complaints from groups of people – whereas Leveson implied they should be allowed to make joint complaints.

Q. What happens now?

All three main political parties are due to have talks on the proposals on Thursday. There are some signs that the Lib Dems in particular could be brought round to the Royal Charter idea – albeit with some changes to specific clauses. Labour has also expressed a willingness to discuss the plan but say they still have “substantive concerns”. The sticking point is this: unlike legislation, for the Royal Charter to be enacted all three parties must agree.