Campaigners for tighter media regulation have accused ministers of "collusion" with the press after a leaked letter showed how a senior newspaper executive warned that plans for a Royal Charter underpinned by statute would be "very difficult to sell" to the industry.
The Hacked Off campaign claimed that Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin "watered down" his plans in response to behind-the-scenes lobbying from the press, dropping the proposal for statutory underpinning and giving the industry more say over the membership of a new body to oversee its self-regulatory regime.
The letter showed that newspaper bosses were "giving orders" to Government ministers on the implementation of the Leveson Report into press standards, said Hacked Off director Brian Cathcart.
But the letter's writer Peter Wright, editor emeritus of Daily Mail publishers Associated Newspapers, dismissed Prof Cathcart's claims as "preposterous" while a Conservative source insisted that the party had discussed its proposals "in an open and transparent fashion" with a number of interested parties, including Hacked Off.
In his letter to Letwin on January 4, Wright said he had discussed working drafts of the Royal Charter with senior figures representing all the national newspaper groups, all of whom shared his concerns.
Particular worries included plans for a statute to enshrine the Charter in law and uncertainty over the membership of a Recognition Panel to verify the press regulation regime, he wrote. It would be "highly desirable" if at least one of the members had a working knowledge of the industry.
Wright said that "red lines" drawn up by the press were not reflected in the draft proposals and warned of a "monstrous chilling effect" on investigative journalism if claimants were allowed to sue over information which had not been published.
Prof Cathcart said that the final proposals published by Conservative Culture Secretary Maria Miller on February 12 appeared to have been amended to meet industry concerns.
"This is proof of a disgraceful stitch-up which puts proprietors before victims," said Prof Cathcart.
"Taken alongside the changes that have been made to the Royal Charter, it shows that newspaper bosses have been giving orders to ministers behind the scenes, just weeks after the Leveson Report declared that such secret manipulation damaged the interests of the public.
"Sections of the press are clearly using privileged access to the most senior ranks of Government to water down Lord Justice Leveson's recommendations."
Letwin and Prime Minister David Cameron "appear to have caved in on almost every single point", said Prof Cathcart, adding: "If more evidence of collusion between newspapers and ministers was required, we now have it in black and white."
But Wright responded: "This letter was written in response to a letter from Oliver Letwin seeking the industry's views on working drafts of the Government's proposed Royal Charter and underpinning statutory clause.
"As Mr Letwin explained, it was part of ongoing discussions and wider consultation, in which Hacked Off have also taken part.
"For Brian Cathcart to say that this was the newspaper industry 'giving orders' to ministers is preposterous.
"Are Hacked Off really suggesting that publishers and editors should be allowed to express no view at all on the future of their own industry, an industry that has enjoyed freedom of expression for 300 years?"
A Conservative spokesman said: "The Royal Charter was discussed in an open and transparent fashion prior to publication with a range of stakeholders.
"We had and continue to have numerous discussions with Hacked Off, other political parties and the industry.
"It is our intention to implement the principles of Leveson effectively and the Royal Charter would provide the toughest system of press regulation this country has ever seen."