In a series of editorials and opinion pieces published this week, editors have warned that the cross-party deal agreed on Monday will impose a crippling new financial burden on the industry and threaten freedom of the press.
Mr Cameron has insisted that his proposals do not amount to statutory regulation of the industry – but most local press editors who have spoken out on the plan take issue with the Prime Minister.
The Newspaper Society, which represents the industry, said today that the ‘red line of principle’ that a free press should not be subject to Parliamentary statute had now been crossed.
Its comments come after the legislation preventing a Royal Charter on press regulation being changed without two-thirds agreement in both Houses of Parliament last night cleared the House of Lords.
However it was amended so that it only applies England and Wales, leaving the way open for Northern Ireland and Scotland to pursue their own separate press regulation regimes.
Editors who have condemned the current plans include Ian Murray, editor in chief of the Southern Daily Echo, who desribed the proposals as an “insult” to the regional press.
He said: “We have neither hacked into phones nor deliberately set out to deceive, compromise nor vilify, and yet we will be caught in this expensive, debilitating new regime, thought up by politicians and lawyers to impress the voters, curry favour with celebrities and let themselves off the hook.”
The Sheffield Star said in an editorial: “The papers that will pay the price will be the trusted local press the length and breadth of Britain. Titles like this newspaper – which are already seeking to navigate through the perfect storm of digital competition, recession, and rising production costs.
“Meanwhile an unregulated social media and offshore digital media are free to publish whatever they wish – with none of the checks on accuracy, balance, or good taste that your local paper has enforced for some 150 years. And with none of its accountability either.”
Writing in the North West Evening Mail, columnist Anne Pickles said: “A deal has been struck by politicians who have appointed themselves puppet masters grasping the strings, however loosely, of all those whose first duty in democracy is to hold them to account.
“Perhaps things could have been worse. But that’s no comfort to local newspapers, where no phones were hacked, no police paid for information, no low friends courted in high places – but where the same brush will inevitably tar us all.”
A Leicester Mercury editorial said: “Britain already has a raft of draconian laws which govern the press; a libel system heavily weighted in favour of litigants; a newly established privacy law; and a raft of reporting restrictions which make coverage of public courts increasingly problematic.
“Those who think newspapers now need statutory regulation – however remote and well-meaning that starts out as being – are in danger of taking another step along a road which will end the freedom of the press to report and investigate, fearlessly and independently, in the public interest.”
And the Northampton Chronicle said: “The new proposals which will effect equally the smallest local weekly to the largest national daily will ultimately bring with them such horrific bureaucracy that there is a real risk that many editors will be submerged. Ultimately, anything contentious or remotely investigative will be open to such widespread challenge that our papers will be anaemic.
“Do we really want Britain to emulate the worst and most corrupt of the world’s tinpot juntas? A free press, with all its many faults, has done more to keep democracy alive than any other force.”
Since the cross-party deal was agreed on Monday there has been some political support expressed for the local press.
Deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg said: “Let us not forget that the hacking scandal was caused by some of our biggest newspapers, but it was still a minority of newspapers and certainly not the local and regional press, which must not pay the price for a problem they did not create.”
Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee John Whittingdale added: “We should recognise the vital importance of local newspapers, and ensure that whatever system we introduce does not add to the burden on them at a time when they are experiencing very difficult economic circumstances.”
The NS said today that the proposals “extract an unacceptably high price for regional and local newspapers, including huge financial penalties for publishers who chose to be outside the system and an arbitration service which would open the floodgates to compensation claims.”