Rupert Murdoch's U.K. Papers Criticize Press Regulation Deal

"The Sun" compares a planned new regulator to the Ministry of Truth in "1984," but publishers didn't immediately say whether they would fight it.


LONDON - Editorials in big U.K. newspapers, including Rupert Murdoch's Times of London and tabloid The Sun, on Tuesday criticized an all-party deal unveiled Monday that would establish a new press regulator with significant powers.

The independent regulator will have the right to impose fines, demand corrections, and newspapers that don't join it can be forced to pay exemplary damages.

Newspapers particularly criticized that the regulator is set out in a royal charter, but that it got tied to regular law and parliament via a clause that says it can only be changed with a two-thirds majority in parliament.

The Sun's front page headline carried the words "Ministry of Truth," comparing the proposed new regulator, which would supervise a code of conduct developed by the newspaper industry, with the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's "1984." It called the set-up a "nightmarish" idea that runs counter to the ideal of a free press.

The tabloid's web site ran a story under the headline "Our Democracy Is Tarnished. Outrage at parties' clampdown on free press."

The Sun also cited Index on Censorship CEO Kirsty Hughes as saying: “The involvement of politicians undermines the fundamental principle that the press holds politicians to account. It is a bleak moment for the U.K.’s reputation as a country where press freedom is cherished.” The Index’s chairman, BBC host Jonathan Dimbleby, said the group had “the gravest anxiety” over the powers being given to politicians.

News Corp.'s U.K. newspaper unit, News International, had on Monday night said that it wouldn't comment on the proposed press regulation deal until looking at it more closely. The Sun on Tuesday also said that "parent company News International said it would study the detail before commenting."

News International's The Times in its editorial said: "[British prime minister] David Cameron’s Royal Charter subjects a free press to parliament and sets a dangerous precedent."

"Yesterday was a bleak episode in the story of freedom of the press in Britain," it said. "This was a deal done without the involvement of the British press, even though the campaign group Hacked Off [which is supported by the likes of Hugh Grant] was, remarkably, present during the negotiations."

While not immediately detailing its planned response to the press regulation deal, the broadsheet also hinted at a possible strategy involving the courts.

"The system of exemplary damages to incite the press to participate in the new system is likely to be the subject of a challenge in the courts," the Times said. "It is by no means clear that the incentive will work."

Papers not affiliated with News Corp. also had words of concern for the press regulation deal.

The Financial Times said it "sets a worrying precedent" and added that "some newspapers opposed in principle to any form of statutory underpinning might be tempted to go their own way."

The Daily Telegraph said that the near unanimity in parliament on press regulation "was a powerful indication of how far the press needs to move in order to restore faith in its regulatory structure."

But while political leaders urged the newspaper industry to endorse the new system, it said, "after 318 years of a free press, its detail deserves careful consideration."

Twitter: @georgszalai