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Editorial: The least worst option for the British press

A Royal Charter is a middle way between statutory regulation and nothing

It could have been very much worse. The Government’s proposal for a press regulator governed by Royal Charter, published today, is grounded in common sense. It is a serious, commendable attempt to find a middle way between those calling for statutory regulation – which this newspaper, like almost every other, considers a threat to the freedom of the press – and those who would argue for no change at all. After the Leveson Inquiry’s revelations of  what the Dowlers, the McCanns and others had been put through in the callous pursuit of sensationalism, to do nothing is simply untenable.

Under the latest plans, the Press Complaints Commission – run by the industry – is to be scrapped. In its place, the Charter proposes to create a “Recognition Panel”, with a board made up of at least five and, at most, nine members, who will have the power to hire and fire regulators. A majority of Board members are to be independent of the press, while a “sufficient number” are to be former editors and senior or academic journalists who understand the industry. Serving editors, sitting MPs and government ministers are barred.

The board will have the dual responsibility of guarding freedom of expression and curbing and punishing excesses. It will also have ultimate control of the wording of the journalists’ code of standards. And it will have the power to compel editors to publish corrections, and to impose fines. In  the worst cases, such levies could run to 1 per cent of the offending publication’s turnover, up to £1,000,000.

Such powers only cover those publications which choose to recognise the board’s authority. To deal with a problem like that which is currently posed by the Daily Express – whose proprietor, Richard Desmond, refuses to recognise the Press Complaints Com-mission – the new system would also enable the courts to impose “exemplary damages” against publications that choose to stay outside the system. While not compulsory, the risk of not joining is, therefore, very high.

To protect the board – and the media – from the whims of government and other vested interests, the draft charter sets a high hurdle to be crossed before there can be either any changes to its wording more significant than a spelling correction, or before the board can be wound up. No such change can happen, it says, without the agreement of the leaders of all three main parties, and a vote in Parliament that produces a two-to-one majority in favour.

Significantly, while Lord Justice Leveson limited his inquiry to the conduct of newspapers, ignoring the growing and wilder environment of the internet, the draft charter sensibly proposes to bring together newspapers, broadcasters and news websites under the supervision of one board.

With the charter now out, the political negotiations can begin. Almost no one outside the Government has accepted the proposals unconditionally. The Hacked Off campaign complains that it concedes too much by not making regulation enforceable by statute and by giving the industry a measure of influence over who will sit on the board. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have also put down markers that they will not accept the proposals without further negotiation. There are questions as to whether the threat of exemplary damages to hang over uncooperative publications is too harsh, possibly even in contravention of EU law. There are also concerns about the proposed arrangements for appointments to the Recognition Panel and the exclusion of serving editors. The arguments will roll on, but at least this is a promising start.