Papers ready to defy MPs on regulation

Newspapers and magazines plan to set up a rival organisation to the royal charter prepared by politicians
  • @iburrell

Senior newspaper figures were finalising plans yesterday for a new independent press regulator which is likely to operate in defiance of a system outlined on Friday in a royal charter prepared by politicians.

More than 100 pages of legal documentation were being prepared to pave the way for a new Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), which could end up regulating newspaper organisations that have not signed up to the recognition panel set out in the royal charter drawn up by MPs.

Ipso is being planned by the publishers of the Daily Mail, The Times and The Sun, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mirror. Other groups, including the publishers of the Independent titles and The Guardian, have reserved their position as to whether they will sign up to the proposed new body.

Tim Luckhurst, a professor of journalism at the University of Kent, said that the likelihood was "we will have a recognition panel with nothing to recognise and an Independent Press Standards Organisation which is not recognised".

"It's a complete mess," said Chris Blackhurst, group content director at The Independent and London Evening Standard. "Politicians and the large newspaper organisations are adopting completely entrenched positions. At this stage it's hard to see how they can be dissuaded from going ahead with their own regulator and be persuaded to sign up to the royal charter."

The large newspaper groups have spent the past eight months drawing up plans for Ipso. Publishers that refuse to sign up to a recognition panel set out in the charter could be subject to exemplary damages if actions against them are upheld in court. Some news groups hold that such penalties are unfair and are now considering legal challenges to the charter, on the grounds that the threat of damages is a means of forcing newspapers to sign up.

Late amendments to the charter may have been designed to head off legal challenges. Local newspapers will be able to opt out of a new complaints arbitration system if it is causing them "serious financial harm" in the estimation of the recognition panel. A small fee has been introduced to the arbitration system to dissuade abuses by claims farmers from chasing compensation payments.

The changes have not appeased newspaper industry trade bodies, which issued a joint statement on Friday describing the charter as being "written by politicians, imposed by politicians and controlled by politicians". They said: "It has not been approved by any of the newspapers or magazines it seeks to regulate." Among the signatories to the statement were bodies representing the national press, the regional and Scottish newspapers and the magazine sector.

"The most important thing is finalising Ipso," said an industry source last night. "There's a huge amount going on in the legal documentation to shore that up. We need to get it up and running."

John Witherow, editor of The Times, told the BBC last week that he believed the newspaper industry might have to go it alone and seek to win back the trust of the public. "I think the press must go ahead with its own form of self-regulation and prove to the public and politicians that it's fair and robust and free."

Paul Dacre, the editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail, publicly warned yesterday that "politicians must not be allowed anywhere near press regulation". Using the unlikely platform of the pages of The Guardian, he appealed for the press to take a united front in opposing the interference of "those who rule us" in overseeing newspapers.

The Mail editor claimed that his paper, which has been condemned for its treatment of the late father of the Labour leader Ed Miliband, shared common ground with The Guardian, which has faced criticism for its coverage of secret files leaked by computer contractor Edward Snowden.

"While the Mail does not agree with The Guardian over the stolen secret security files it published, I suggest that we can agree that the fury and recrimination the story is provoking reveals again why those who rule us – and who should be held to account by newspapers – cannot be allowed to sit in judgment on the press," he wrote.

In evidence to the Leveson inquiry, Mr Dacre said he detected the "rank smells of hypocrisy and revenge" in the pursuit of the press by the political class. That was a rare public foray from a powerful editor who prefers a low profile.

But the row over his paper's coverage of Ralph Miliband has exposed Mr Dacre to fierce personal criticism and calls for his resignation. In his article yesterday, he denied that the traducing of the late Marxist academic as "The Man Who Hated Britain" had given succour to those demanding that newspapers need to answer to statute. "I would argue the opposite," he said. "The febrile heat, hatred, irrationality and prejudice provoked by [the] row reveals why politicians must not be allowed anywhere near press regulation."

Professor Luckhurst identified a clause in the charter that allows for it to be altered by future parliaments, provided there is a two-thirds majority in both houses, as a "red line in the sand" for newspaper publishers.

Meanwhile, Hacked Off, the press reform group which includes the actor Hugh Grant, was unimpressed with the late changes to the charter. It complained that "there have been further concessions to the press industry lobby".