In the wake of the News of the World hacking scandal, all three major political parties have agreed to set up a body to regulate the press. The regulator itself will be capable of fining publishers up to £1m and demanding public apologies from them. It will also be established by royal charter rather than a statute passed through Parliament.

Describing the body, David Cameron said it would be: “tough independent self-regulation that will deliver for victims and meet the principles set out in [Leveson’s] report”. He has said that in order to make this possible, there are “two very important but relatively small” changes that need to be made to two statutes being passed through Parliament: the Crime and Courts Bill and the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill.

The amendment to the Crime and Courts Bill will encourage publishers to sign up with the regulatory body by threatening damages if a claim were to be upheld against a newspaper that refused to join the body; while the amendment to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill would require any changes to the charter which governs the body to be ratified by a two-thirds majority in both Houses.

The added clause in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill means that it will be difficult to change the charter, and therefore the terms that govern the body. Due to this, many have expressed fear over the speed and reach of the proposed regulator. Nevertheless, political parties are hopeful that the body will regulate the media and restore the reputation that was so badly tarnished by phone-hacking.

The idea of a press regulator is a very divisive issue. It is even enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” Writing in The Guardian, David Puttnam summed up the views of the opposing sides over the decision to create a regulatory body for the press: “it’s either been the end of 300 years of press freedom or an early but significant victory in the battle to ensure a free and fair media, a media that genuinely serve the interests of citizens, and the development of an ever better informed democracy.”

Prior to the decision, lawyers arguing against the creation of a regulatory body said the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is an example of how the press regulates itself, yet phone hacking is cited as evidence to the contrary. In fact, the Leveson report itself states in point 7 of its introduction: there have been too many times when…parts of the press have acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist.” Yet to many, setting up a body to moderate the press is censorship. In countries such as North Korea, China and Saudi Arabia, journalists are at serious risk. While one can see the argument put forward by Index on Censorship (a pressure group that campaigns for freedom of the press), perhaps this is the thin end of the wedge, but calling the decision to create a chartered regulatory body a “sad day” ignores many of the other privileges British journalists have.

It is also understood that the regulator will observe practises by newspapers and magazines, but there is a point of contention over whether it will regulate all websites. Larger websites and blogs will presumably be subject to it; but small-scale blogging will be exempt. Clearly, a method to differentiate between websites and blogs is necessary.

The decision whether to create a body will be discussed in the May meeting of the Queen’s Privy Council before either being approved or rejected.

BY: Matthew Jones

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