Britain approved a new system of regulating its press, a move newspapers said was draconian and threatened freedom of speech but which former victims of press excess described as long overdue.
The landmark reform, now enshrined in a Royal Charter signed by Queen Elizabeth II, comes in the wake of Britain’s phone-hacking scandal. With perfect timing, at least for the government and its cross-party allies, the new rules were approved on the same day that a London court heard that two former editors of newspapers oversaw a system of phone-hacking and illegal payments.
The new charter is expected to create a body which would subject Britain’s newspapers and magazines to a government-backed watchdog intended to curb the abuses uncovered by the hacking scandal, which revealed that journalists at the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World and other papers illegally listened in on the phone voicemails of public figures and crime victims.
The government says it wants to stamp out a scandal-hungry culture in parts of the press, highlighted in a lengthy judge-led inquiry. But the approval of the new charter by the queen and all three of Britain’s major political parties does not resolve a bitter national debate about media regulation. Many journalists are deeply opposed to the plans, and the press will be free to sign up or stay outside of the new regulation framework.
“It’ll protect freedom of press and offer redress when mistakes are made,” Britain’s Ministry of Culture said on its official Twitter feed. A group of political advisers to the head of state, Queen Elizabeth, had approved the new system in conjunction with the monarch.
The development paves the way for a new industry regulator, makes it easier for people who feel they have been wronged by the press to have their complaints heard, and will allow the new press watchdog to levy fines of up to £1 million.
All three main political parties, the Conservative Party, the Labor Party and the Liberal Democrats, back the new rules. Britain’s press has tried and failed to block the new system via the courts, arguing it would expose the industry to possible political interference since the British Parliament will be able to change the system if it wants to. The government rejected that charge however, saying it had stopped short of statutory press regulation and opted for a form of self-regulation instead, albeit one which was tougher than the press wanted.
On Tuesday publishers went to the High Court and then the Court of Appeal to block government action. Both courts rejected the attempts to seek judicial review and requests for an urgent injunction.
Tony Gallagher, editor of Britain’s right-leaning Daily Telegraph newspaper, said after the code had been approved: “Chances of us signing up for state interference: zero.”
But Hacked Off, a campaign group for press victims, said it welcomed the move and urged the press to drop what it said was its misguided opposition to the new system.
“The press should seize the chance to show the public they do not fear being held to decent ethical standards and that they are proud to be accountable to the people they write for and about,” it said in a statement.