Representatives of all three main political parties will meet today in a last ditch attempt to agree a compromise on press regulation that can win the backing of both MPs and the newspaper industry.
In a surprising move, the Culture Secretary Maria Miller announced that the Conservatives were prepared to re-open discussions on Parliament’s Royal Charter to try and allay press concerns that the new system would be costly and impractical. Under her proposed changes, members of the public wanting to access complaints arbitration would have to pay a fee to access the service to prevent spurious claims.
In addition, working journalists rather than “lay” members would be responsible for drawing up the code of conduct under which complaints would be assessed. However, the code would still have to be approved by an independent panel. Ms Miller said that unless she could get agreement from Labour and the Liberal Democrats on the changes by Friday, the Government would move forward to ratify the existing Royal Charter on 30 October.
The move is designed to put pressure on Labour and the Liberal Democrats to compromise on a new regulatory framework for press regulation and avoid a potential boycott by the newspaper industry.
However, it was far from clear if the concessions would be enough to win round newspaper editors who have threatened to go it alone with their own system for press regulation.
Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator magazine, said his publication would still boycott the new regulator. “We have opposed every attempted political power grab since 1834 and we will have no part in any government-mandated regulator now,” he said.
If publishers refuse to sign up they face having to pay costs in any libel actions taken against them even if they are successful in defending the claim. Ms Miller is due to meet Labour’s Deputy Leader Harriet Harman and the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Wallace to discuss the compromise today. The Culture Secretary has set a deadline of Friday for the amended charter to be published.
Outlining her proposal in the House of Commons, Ms Miller confirmed that that Government did not accept an alternative Royal Charter put forward by the newspaper industry as it did not comply with some of the “fundamental principles” of the Leveson Report.
She insisted that she still believed it was possible to get an agreement that both safeguarded the freedom of the press and provided an independent redress for complainants.
“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get this right. We all want it to be the best we can do to give individuals access to redress whilst safeguarding this country’s free press which forms such a vital part of our democracy,” she said.
Labour sources gave a cautious welcome to Ms Miller’s announcement suggesting that the parties “were not that far apart”. But they insisted that any changes “could not deviate” from Leveson’s recommendations.
Brian Cathcart, director of the pressure group Hacked Off, said it was “regrettable” that further changes would be made to the cross-party charter and added: “The moment has come to ask the press, the big companies who run the national newspapers, to think again about their position.”