'We can never lecture a Mugabe or a Putin on freedom of expression again'

The statute-backed press regulation regime passed by Parliament yesterday has been greeted with dismay by large sections of the press industry.

And over the coming weeks publishers will decide whether they will join The Spectator in boycotting the new regulator.

Such a move could leave them open to exemplary damages in future libel cases under an amendment to the Crime and Courts bill which was passed by 530 votes to 13 in the Commons last night.

But questions have already been raised about the legality of the clause meaning publishers could boycott the voluntary self-regulation regime and challenge the first exemplary damages order when a test case comes along.

Newspaper Society president Adrian Jeakings said that  yesterday’s deal “completely ignores the Leveson recommendations on the local press”.

He said: “The Royal Charter proposals agreed by the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour – with huge financial penalties for newspapers which choose to be outside the system and an arbitration service which would open the floodgates to compensation claimants – would place a crippling burden on the UK’s 1100 local newspapers inhibiting freedom of speech and the freedom to publish.

“Local newspapers remain fiercely opposed to any form of statutory involvement or underpinning in the regulation of the press. A free press cannot be free if it is dependent on and accountable to a regulatory body recognised by the state." 

Many publishers are particular annoyed that the final round of cross-party talks in Labour leader Ed Miliband’s office on Sunday night involved representatives from campaign-group Hacked Off, but no-one from the newspaper or magazine industry.

Northern and Shell, Daily Mail Group, News International, Telegraph Media Group, the Newspaper Society and the Professional Publishers Association said in a joint statement that the first they knew of the final draft of the Royal Charter was when it was published late yesterday afternoon.

In its leader, The Times noted a basic principle was at stake and that it has been lost.

“The role of a free press is to hold the Government to account. It should not work the other way round.”
 
Tim Jotischky, the deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, tweeted: “We can never lecture a Mugabe or a Putin on freedom of expression again. Quite an achievement for Hacked Off et al."

Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator said he would risk a prison-term rather than pay any fine from an “underpinned regulator”.

“Whether I go to prison or not is up to the enemies of press freedom to decide,” he said.

The Daily Mail noted in its leader today that yesterday’s deal was reached “without the agreement of the newspaper industry, on whose cooperation it will depend  – and whose members, in the main, have profound reservations about significant aspects of it”.

It said that the legality of the exemplary damages regime was “highly questionable” because it meant that newspapers outside the regulator could be left with the costs of a court action “even if they are cleared of any wrongdoing”.

It said: “How can a system be described as ‘self regulation’ when it will deny newspapers any real say in the choice of their regulators or of the regulations to be imposed”.

It concluded: “Over the coming weeks, it will be for the newspaper and magazine industry to decide wheter it can cooperate with a system involving politicians, many of who will be here today and gone tomorrow, which overturns 300 years of press freedom.”

The Sun said it is “committed to tougher rules that safeguard the public” but added that “much remains to be studied before the Royal Charter can be accepted as the foundation stone of new regulation”.

But The Independent and The Guardian were more positive about the deal.

Independent editor Chris Blackhurst said: “This isn’t perfect but neither is it terrible.  I don’t see anything in it that will threaten the sort of journalism we produce at The Independent.’

The Guardian said: “The Levesonian mantra of ‘independent self-regulation’ is undoubtedly something of an oxymoron, but it is a slogan for reform that no one has bettered without disregarding either freedom of speech on the one hand, or – on the other – the privacy of blameless victims and the high corruption which long concealed their plight.

“Much of Fleet Street has ploughed on as if there were really nothing to balance, only one supreme freedom at stake here: its freedom to carry on as heretofore.”

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