Local newspaper chiefs have urged Government Ministers to engage in a “meaningful dialogue” over fears that a new system of press regulation could force smaller publications out of business.
They complained that while the Leveson Inquiry explicitly exonerated the cash-strapped sector from blame for the excesses which sparked his review, it could end up being punished hardest.
An alternative version of the cross-party Royal Charter setting up a new self-regulatory body, drawn up by the industry and backed by almost all national and local papers, is presently being considered by ministers.
MPs were told today that the Government’s version lacked the “flexibility” to address fears over issues such as the potential abuse of a free arbitration service for complainants.
Many complaints presently dealt with in a “sensitive and speedy way” by editors could be “dressed up” by lawyers as legal claims, landing struggling local publications with costly bills, the Commons culture, media and sport committee was told.
And in a sector that already faced a daily “fight for survival” as it sought to adapt to plunging circulations and advertising revenues, that could prove fatal to many smaller newspapers.
Ashley Highfield, chief executive officer of local newspaper group Johnston Press, said it had “substantial issues” with a Government Charter “that potentially raises costs to us, that doesn’t provide true independence from politicians and is inflexible and potentially opens the door to vexatious group complaints.
“These are the core issues,” he told the committee.
“I would hope we can sit down and have a meaningful dialogue with Government and reach an agreement because as it stands we were quite clearly exonerated by Leveson and yet we are about to be punished and punished in a way that is going to hit our shareholders’ pockets.”
David Newell, director of the Newspaper Society, which represents regional and local media, said culture secretary Maria Miller had indicated during recent talks that she would look at the arbitration issue.
“She very much wanted officials to be in discussions about concerns about arbitration, about the possibility of a pilot, about the possibility of people who go to arbitration having to pay a fee,” he told the committee.
He said the Government’s Charter was “fundamentally inflexible and directly contrary to Leveson’s view that there should be a system of independent self regulation”.
“The fear of the small publisher who gets caught up into this, who Leveson exonerated, is that they might be forced to join a regulator that they don’t believe they should have to join, to protect themselves from a system of damages and cost rules that are heavily targeted on one section of the media,” he told the committee.
“That seems a double jeopardy, a double attack, which we don’t believe that Leveson really intended.”
“It’s time for the Government to decide, actually, where it wants to be on all this. I think that the Royal Charter process that was signed up to by the three party leaders was misguided, particularly as it happened in circumstances in which the industry was not party to the final negotiations, they were cut out of them. I think that was wrong.”
The evidence session – which also heard from other major local newspaper groups DC Thomson and Local World – was told that the sector had calculated that setting up its own system of self-regulation was probably unaffordable.
DC Thomson managing director Christopher Thomson said they were the “people caught in the middle here with the bullets flying around” between parliament and the national newspapers.