Times editor Witherow says press will ignore Parliament's Royal Charter and set up own regulator

Newspaper publishers will establish their own form of self regulation if the Government attempt to impose its Royal Charter tomorrow.

John Witherow, editor of The Times said he was opposed to any involvement of politicians in regulating the press and said the proposals agreed by politicians were deeply flawed.

Speaking to The Media Show on BBC Radio 4, Witherow said: “I think the press must go ahead with its own form of self regulation to prove to the public and the politicians that it is robust, fair and free.”

He said he was disappointed that the Privy Council rejected the press-backed proposal for a Royal Charter as he said publishers had compromised greatly in accepting many of Lord Leveson’s proposals.

 “I think it is on the principle of allowing politicians to be able to regulate the press. Clearly for hundreds of years we haven’t had that and we’ve had a very robust free press that underpins democracy.

“Often the press has upset politicians and they would love to regulate us more severely.”

Witherow warned that the system of regulation favoured by Parliament could put newspapers out of business. He said the need to achieve a two-thirds majority of both Houses of Parliament, in order to make future changes to the system, would be almost impossible.

“It is almost inconceivable how that could be achieved, in fact you could be setting up a regulatory body with fatal flaws in it yet was almost impossible to reform.

“Arbitration is a key area. Their charter wants to impose arbitration across the board. We want to introduce a pilot scheme as we are in favour of it in principle but we don’t know how it will work in practice.

“If it doesn’t work you could lumber on the industry some very expensive method that could be a real hindrance to the regional press that is under some extreme financial pressure. “

Witherow said if the pilot scheme proposed by the press did not work, it could be easily changed and also raised alarm bells about how Parliament's regulation system would allow third-party complaints.

“They want to impose these group complaints with a very low threshold, so we would be inundated with complaints from pressure groups – whether it be on the environment or the Palestinian problem that would inhibit free debate.”

Witherow warned that even if the Royal Charter plans are rubberstamped in Westminster, they may have problems in securing Royal Assent.  

“We will see what they do. It raises important constitutional issues. Will the Queen endorse a Royal Charter that is put forward by the parties and is opposed by the press? She does not want to be involved in a controversy? They may hit a fundamental stumbling block.

“We still intend to go ahead with independent regulation. Whether we put it up for recognition is something we will consider further down the road. We intend to apply the criteria we put out in our Royal Charter for our self regulation.”

Witherow said the involvement of politicians was a red line issue for the press.

“It is the principle that the politicians will be deciding about the regulation of a free press and a free country.”

“We are proposing a wholly independent means of self regulation. It was very much along the lines that Leveson proposals.

“We have compromised already. I think involving politicians in any form of regulating the press is unacceptable."

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