One of the most turbulent eras of British newspaper history ended in a backroom political deal today with all three main parties claiming victory over new regulation.
In a speech to Parliament, Prime Minister David Cameron announced a new press regulator which would be independent of the newspaper industry and could fine publications up to £1 million ($1.5 million) and force them to print corrections and apologies.
The new body would be created under a royal charter, rather than statute, and any future changes would have to win agreement from two thirds of both the Houses of Lords and Commons.
Mr. Cameron says that because the regulator will be instituted under royal charter rather than Parliamentary process it will be insulated from political influence, a chief Conservative concern in the debate. The opposition Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats wanted Parliament involved so that the regulator's pronouncements had legal teeth. It appears they will get that, as the regulator's operations can only be changed in the future by a two-thirds majority vote in both Houses of Parliament – a high bar, but enough to give the regulator a "statutory underpinning," meaning its decisions have the force of law.
Today’s announcement caps one of the biggest crises facing Britain’s press following the hacking scandal which saw reporters and private investigators employed by Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World accessing the voicemails of politicians, celebrities, and crime victims. The scandal, which dates back to 2006 and ended in the closure of the Sunday tabloid two years ago, has seen millions paid out in compensation and the setting up of the Leveson inquiry into press culture and ethics.
Judge Brian Leveson published his 2,000-page report last November, recommending a stricter press watchdog backed by statutory controls.
At a press conference, director Brian Cathcart said: “The royal charter that they have accepted will introduce a new system that will protect the freedom of the press and, at the same time, protect the public from the kinds of abuses that made the Leveson inquiry necessary.”
However, Kirsty Hughes from the Index on Censorship said it was a "sad day for press freedom in the UK."
“Requiring a two-third majority from both Houses for future changes in the Royal Charter introduces political involvement for all time into press regulation in the UK," she said in a statement. "It is a bleak moment for the UK’s international reputation as a country where press freedom is cherished as a fundamental principle and right."
Ironically, today’s agreement came just hours before it was revealed that Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh had accepted "substantial damages" in the High Court after Murdoch’s Sun newspaper admitted accessing text messages from her stolen cell phone. Last week it emerged that police were probing nearly 600 new claims of interceptions by the News of the World, on top of hundreds of victims who have either accepted compensation or are pursuing News International through the courts.
Media analyst Claire Enders says the agreement was a classic political compromise which negated the power of powerful media group owners.
“Cameron’s adviser Lord Black had held out for a revamped Press Complaints Commission which would be dominated by the Telegraph Group, MGN, and News International, who wanted to influence who would sit on it. That’s not going to happen now," she says.
“Frankly, it would have been remarkable if the status quo remained, because the victims of phone hacking would not have gone away and would still campaign for statutory underpinning. Now David Cameron can say ‘I tried,’ Labour and the Lib Dems get what they want, and the victim groups are placated. Everyone wins.”
However Barnie Choudhury, principal lecturer in journalism at Lincoln University, has doubts that the changes will prove meaningful.
“I don’t think this will make much of a difference on national newspapers," he says. "We’re in a hiatus at the moment when journalists have been arrested as well as police, prison officers, so newsdesks are being careful. It’s what happens when the spotlight is off them which will be interesting.”