Royal Charter gambit will decide future of press regulation and libel reform

The future of both press regulation and the Defamation Bill could be decided this week as the Government puts forward its proposals for a Royal Charter to recognise the new press regulator.

The Royal Charter plan is set to be announced tomorrow, followed by all-party talks on Thursday. Then the press industry is expected to issue its response, possibly next week.

All the major UK newspaper and magazine publishers have agreed to sign up to press a regulator which fulfils all the requirements of the Leveson Report.

The only sticking point is how to create a low-cost libel dispute arbitration arm which is acceptable to regional press publishers – who fear paying out damages for complaints which are currently settled with free PCC-brokered corrections and apologies.

The Conservative-backed Royal Charter plan is seen as a way of providing independent “verification” of the new press regulator, to ensure it remains independent and effective, without legislation which publishers fear would hand control of press regulation to MPs.

The success or failure of the Royal Charter plan will also have ramifications for the Defamation Bill – currently going through Parliament.

Last week, the House of Lords passed an Opposition Amendment to the bill which enables the creation of a libel dispute arbitration body recognised in law as part of a statute-backed system of press regulation.

Cross-party support for the Royal Charter plan could allow the Government to risk a vote on removing the Lords amendment to the Defamation Bill.

The House of Lords amendment has been widely condemned by Libel reform campaigners.

One of the biggest issues with the bill is the requirement  that it would force publishers to consult the new regulator in advance of publication by allowing judges to award exemplary libel damages against publishers who do not seek its advice.

If cross-party support is not acheived for the Royal Charter plan, the Government may decide to drop the Defamation Bill from the Parliamentary schedule rather than risk a likely defeat.

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