Three senior press industry figures representing publishers in press regulation negotiations have taken issue with Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger's account of events which led to the current stand-off with Government.
Last week cross-party negotiators agreed a final draft of a Royal Charter to govern regulation of the press backed up by the statutory threat of exemplary damages against non-members of the regulator. Publishers were furious that they were excluded from the final round of talks between politicians and Hacked Off and many are concerned about the statutory element.
Nearly two weeks after the Hacked Off-brokered deal, publishers have yet to indicate whether they will accept this Parliament-imposed solution or walk away and set up their own regulator (or regulators).
Rusbridger has criticised the secrecy surrounding publisher talks with politicians in the wake of Leveson and suggested that an 'unseen hand' stamped down on national press editors after they met in the Delaunay restaurant on 5 December, a week after publication of the Leveson report, and agreed to the vast majority of its recommendations.
"Within two hours we had agreed the overwhelming majority of the 47 Leveson recommendations for establishing an independent self-regulatory regime for the press. Six clauses relating to statutory underpinning were rejected. Of the 41 remaining clauses five were agreed with reasonable amendments and the remaining 36 passed. The minutes said: 'We agreed unanimously to accept the Leveson principles – save statutory underpinning … on almost every point we accepted Lord Justice Leveson's wording.'"The editors went further. We welcomed an arbitration service as'a very significant innovation for both newspapers and the public to ensure swift, cheap and effective resolution of claims.' We agreed the need for a recognition body to verify the new regulatory system and suggested a retired judge might chair it."It was a historic moment: the full spectrum of the national press in total agreement with the main Leveson recommendations – with some tweaking at the edges and without statutory underpinning. Within a week Harding was out of a job and an unseen hand had decided that the 20 or so national editors in the room were not to be trusted with such things. We never met as a group again and the Delaunay agreement was never published."
Rusbridger noted that two Conservative peers (Lords Black and Hunt) were then charged with representing the press industry and that negotiations with politicians became "mired in hand-to-hand fighting over the detail".
The Guardian has published a joint response to the article written by Guy Black, executive director, Telegraph Media Group (Lord Black of Brentwood); David Newell, director of the Newspaper Society; and Peter Wright, editor emeritus, Daily Mail Group.
"Alan Rusbridger's account of the events which led to last Monday's widely condemned all-party agreement to impose a Royal Charter on the press ignores a number of inconvenient truths."The Delauney breakfast was organised by the then editor of The Times acting in concert with two other editors whose newspapers bear only a tiny percentage of the cost of newspaper regulation. They claimed to speak for the industry but failed to understand that, with no representatives invited from the regional press or magazine industry, who between them carry 45 per cent of the cost, that could not be the case."Although there was a universal feeling that it was a positive meeting, there was also a worry that it was an attempt to bounce the newspaper and magazine industry into accepting Leveson's recommendations without debate."It was concluded the industry could not overturn a system of regulation constructed over many years without further careful thought, and it was agreed that all the editors present would go back to talk to their lawyers."
Responding to the criticism about secrecy, the three note that the results of the industry negiations were the draft Royal Charter published by the Conservatives on 12 February.
"What a pity that the Guardian's response was to advocate statutory underpinning, now rejected by every liberal paper around the world."Alan Rusbridger is right when he says we need reform and we need a free press. And right when he says we can't achieve both at speed and in the dark. That is why we need to let the dust settle on the rushed legislation of the last week and decide how best to tackle both tasks."