Failed promises? Ministers 'still to look at' new plan for press regulation

Special sub-committee set up four months ago to examine alternatives has so far failed to hold a single group meeting, according to Cabinet Office information

James Cusick
Saturday 05 October 2013 20:55
Interested party: Lord Black, of the Telegraph Media Group
Interested party: Lord Black, of the Telegraph Media Group

David Cameron has failed to deliver on his promise that the final decision on the future structure of UK press regulation will have included a "robust" four-month examination of the self-policing model backed by some leading UK newspaper groups.

A special sub-committee of the Privy Council made up mainly of cabinet members, which was set up four months ago to examine an alternative to the system of regulation backed by Parliament in March, has so far failed to hold a single group meeting, according to Cabinet Office information.

The Privy Council is scheduled to reveal on Wednesday which of two competing systems of press regulation – one already approved by Parliament, the other an update of the old self-regulation model – should be passed to the Queen for automatic royal approval. Insiders expect the government scheme, backed by all three major parties in Westminster, to be endorsed.

However, the revelation that one of the two options may not have been fully investigated is likely to fuel criticism of the way the Government has dealt with press reform and seems certain to provoke a call for judges to review the way the process has been dealt with. Any such delay is likely to is likely to fuel criticism that the Government is allowing the issue to be kicked into the long grass. Critics will argue that by failing to be seen to scrutinise the plan backed by the Daily Mail Group, Telegraph Media Group and News International, it is open to the charge of unfair dealing.

Others may allege that any delay, with an election just 18 months away, will suit a government reluctant to antagonise powerful newspaper groups. Although, with the possibly politically embarrassing phone-hacking trials of a number of senior former News International executives beginning at the end of this month, Whitehall insiders say the Government does not want the issue dragging on still longer.

Whatever the political sensitivities, the absence of even one group meeting, according a senior Whitehall lawyer, "doesn't look too smart, especially when it's a matter affecting the press directly. Public perception is important here, and this has been ignored. A judicial review of the way this has been handled is now inevitable."

The scheme promoted by the Press Standards Board of Finance (PressBoF), which is chaired by Lord Black of Brentwood and which ran the now discredited Press Complaints Commission, was launched in May. No 10 subsequently promised the industry-backed charter, which retains key elements of self-regulation, would be examined by a special sub-committee of the Privy Council "in a manner consistent with delivering a robust and justifiable decision". This meant that sealing the cross-party charter was suspended until the committee examined the industry model.

With the Privy Council's October meeting three days away, the sub-committee's examination can be only perfunctory. Its final decision to back the system, which has already been approved by Parliament, is seen as a foregone conclusion.

Although the Privy Council told The Independent on Sunday that it would not give a "running commentary" on its discussions, sources close to ministers on the sub-committee confirmed that it had yet to meet as a group.

The committee is being jointly chaired by the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, and the Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander. Three other Tories are involved: the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, and the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude. A further three Lib Dem politicians are also on the committee: the justice minister Lord McNally, Scotland's Lord Advocate, Lord Wallace, and the Scottish Secretary of State, Michael Moore.

For the sub-committee to force the industry-backed charter into consideration, it would need to unanimously agree to oust the Commons-approved all-party charter.

The IoS has been told that this has not happened and that, when the Privy Council meets on Wednesday, there will be only one option on the table. This means the Queen will approve a regulatory system currently opposed by the majority of the UK's major newspaper groups.

Although a parliamentary sub-committees of this kind can often discuss issues with "a write-around", where members exchange correspondence with each other before reaching their own individual conclusions, the absence of any group meeting on the sensitive subject of statutory press regulation could be problematic if a judicial review follows.

The lack of press consensus on the likely new parliament-backed regulatory framework also points to further delay and potential testing of any new system in the courts.

This was effectively confirmed by a leading print industry executive who said: "This has always been a complex issue, and one that cannot be examined by politicians sending each other a sequence of emails or texts, then perhaps holding one eve-of-decision gathering. We are concerned that the outcome may effectively be a stitch-up and that Wednesday's announcement will confirm our worst fears."

The cross-party system, involving a Royal Charter, will shortly lead to the establishment of a recognition panel capable of approving a new press regulator expected to meet the standards of practice and ethics specified in the Leveson report.

Those newspaper groups that fail to sign up to the new regulator could face higher costs in defending complaints than those who accept the authority of the new system.

Brothers united

The bitter row between Ed Miliband and the Daily Mail has brought harmony in one respect, at least – he has joined forces with his brother in their battle to defend their father's memory.

The Labour leader spoke to David Miliband twice in the past week, first following the Daily Mail article last Saturday under the headline "The Man Who Hated Britain", and secondly when it was revealed that a Mail on Sunday reporter had gatecrashed a memorial service for their uncle. When he was told by aides about the first Daily Mail article, Ed called David in New York, where he is working as chief executive of the International Rescue Committee charity. On Thursday, David was in San Francisco when he learnt of the reporter turning up at Professor Harry Keen's memorial service.

Labour aides revealed that at the height of the row last week, 200 people signed up to become Labour party members in the space of 20 hours. According to one staffer, this was unprecedented and redolent of the Tony Blair years.

A Labour source insisted Mr Miliband's battle with the Mail group was not motivated by regulation or Leveson, but about "a man who wanted to stand up for his father".

Jane Merrick

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