Regional press leaders are refusing to get behind David Cameron’s plans for a new press regulator, claiming they would “cripple” the industry.
The Prime Minister last night called on publishers to back his proposals for a regulator overseen by Royal Charter after securing cross-party agreement at Westminster.
But the Newspaper Society, which represents the local and regional press, has refused to fall into line, issuing a defiant thumbs-down to Mr Cameron’s proposals last night.
In a statement, NS president and Archant chief executive Adrian Jeakings said the proposed new arbitration system for press compaints would “open the floodgates” to scores of compensation claims against already hard-pressed local publishers.
He said: “Lord Justice Leveson found that the UK’s local media had nothing to do with the phone hacking scandal which prompted the Inquiry. Indeed, he praised regional and local newspapers for their important social and democratic role and recommended that the regulatory model proposed should not provide an added burden to our sector.
“He called on the Government to look urgently at what action it might take to help safeguard regional and local newspapers’ ongoing viability as a valued and important part of the British press. Yet the deal announced by the three main political parties today completely ignores the Leveson recommendations on the local press.
“The Royal Charter proposals agreed by the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour – with huge financial penalties for newspapers which choose to be outside the system and an arbitration service which would open the floodgates to compensation claimants – would place a crippling burden on the UK’s 1100 local newspapers inhibiting freedom of speech and the freedom to publish.
“Local newspapers remain fiercely opposed to any form of statutory involvement or underpinning in the regulation of the press. A free press cannot be free if it is dependent on and accountable to a regulatory body recognised by the state.”
Earlier Mr Cameron outlined details of the cross-party deal agreed in the early hours of yesterday morning in an emergency debate in the Commons.
Insisting the proposed solution was not a form of statutory legislation, the Prime Minister said there was a “danger” the press would not comply with a new system of regulation which had statutory underpinning and he was not prepared to “cross the Rubicon”.
Mr Cameron said that the deal reached complied with the key proposals put forward by Lord Justice Leveson following his inquiry into press standards.
He said: “My message to the press is clear: We have had the debate, now it is time to get on and make this work.”
The Royal Charter agreed by the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems will be submitted to the privy council for approval at its May meeting.
Mr Cameron said the new system of regulation would include prominent apologies, million-pound fines and a robust standards code.
He added: “We can put all of this in place without the need for statutory regulation.”
The Prime Minister said there would be two “small legislative changes” in adopting the Royal Charter and changes to the crime and courts bill to ensure that newspapers belonging to the new press watchdog will be exempt from exemplary damages for libel.
Labour leader Ed Miliband has also welcomed the deal and said it would uphold the principles of a free press while protecting the victims.
He said: “It will allow the press to hold the powerful to account without abusing their own power. Today the parties have come together to put the victims first.”