Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has revealed that he is “unenthusiastic about endorsing a messy compromise” on press reform.
Rusbridger had previously offered cautious support to the use of statute to underpin a new system of press regulation.
But writing in The Guardian today he said of the Royal Charter-backed press regulation deal: “It would be wrong to rush it through at this stage if it enshrines some things that are still far from fully worked out.
“The advocates of reform – including the Guardian – should be unenthusiastic about endorsing a messy compromise with unintended consequences and with the prospect of years of stalemate in the courts and with the regulator itself.”
An amendment to the Crime and Courts Bill is currently going through Parliament which allows members of an officially recognised press regulator to be largely immune from the threat of exemplary damages in libel and privacy cases. It also states that non-members of the regulator would have to pay legal costs for both sides even if they win libel actions.
In a linked cross-party deal, a Royal Charter was agreed which set out the criteria a press regulator would need to meet in order to be officially-recognised. This included a stipulation that the Recognition Panel formed to licence the regulator would be completely independent from the press. It also stated that the regulator should have the power to compel publication of corrections, on the front page if necessary, and that it should include an arbitration service to allow low-cost settlement of libel and privacy cases.
Rusbridger urged the House of Lords to remove the “exemplary damages” clause from the Crime and Courts Bill today.
He said: “It should be sufficient to offer the cost benefits of an arbitration service – even to those outside regulation who can show that they acted to the professional standards of the industry. More carrot, in other words, and less stick.”
Rusbridger suggested that the press should go ahead with the creation of its own independent system of regulation and that an independent recognition panel should be created with a broad remit to “reach a judgment on whether the new regulator is, and does, what Leveson had in mind”.
He added: “Allow the system to bed in for a year or so and for a dialogue between regulator and recogniser about what works and what needs tweaking. Then, and only then, think about wrapping it all up in a Royal Charter.”
Rusbridger also called for an end to the secrecy surrounding the press industry’s response to Leveson.
“We badly need reform. We also need a free press. Achieving both can’t be done at speed or in the dark.”
It is proposed that the Royal Charter will go to the Queen for approval at the next meeting of the Privy Council on 8 May.
Under a clause added to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill in the House of Lords last week, it is proposed that a two-thirds majority of both houses of Parliament will be required to change the terms of the Charter.