U.K. Newspaper Groups Detail Plans for New Self-Regulator

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Rupert Murdoch

The Independent Press Standards Organization has the support of News Corp's News UK and others, but Hacked Off criticizes it as "a cynical rebranding exercise."

LONDON -- Representatives of the British newspaper and magazine industry took further steps on Monday to set up a new self-regulator for the press following the conclusion of last year's Leveson Inquiry into media standards and ethics.

The inquiry had been launched following the phone-hacking scandal.

A group of newspaper firms that include the News UK arm of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp and the publishers of the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mirror on Monday unveiled draft constitutional documents that set out the structure and rules of the new regulator, which is set to be called the "Independent Press Standards Organization." It would replace the Press Complaints Commission, which was widely criticized as toothless.

The group said the proposal will now be considered by all 200-plus newspaper and magazine publishers "with a view to final agreement in the next few weeks."

It also said that the process of selecting the first members of the appointment panel for the new body was ready to start as soon as possible.

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling and others signed a letter last week urging Britain's culture secretary Maria Miller to push through press regulation reforms that have been delayed. The letter, drafted by activist group Hacked Off, whose supporters include Hugh Grant, pushed for the government to pursue a so-called royal charter on press regulation drawn up by the British parliament earlier this year in a multi-party agreement.

Meanwhile, the establishment of the Independent Press Standards Organization does not depend on the approval of a  royal charter, its organizers said Monday.

"This is important, as the royal charter approval process [which begins this week with the launch of a council sub-committee] may take some months to complete," the group said. "It is already eight months since Leveson delivered his report, and the industry does not believe the public can be expected to wait longer before a new regulator is put in place."

The Independent Press Standards Organization would have a majority of independent members and no industry veto on appointments, the newspaper groups behind the proposal said. The latter is a key change from a previous proposal that was criticized by the publishers of The Guardian and the Financial Times.

The regulator would also have the power to impose $1.5 million (£1 million) fines for "serious or systemic" wrong-doing.

A standards and compliance arm would have investigative powers to call editors to account, while an arbitration service would offer "a speedy and inexpensive alternative to the libel courts, subject to the successful conclusion of a pilot scheme."

The proposal also calls for a "warning service to alert the press, and other media such as broadcasters, when members of the public make it clear that they do not wish to be the subject of media attention."

On Monday, Hacked Off, which helped develop the multi-party royal charter, attacked the proposed Independent Press Standards Organization as "no more than a cynical rebranding exercise" and attempt by newspaper groups to avoid more radical regulation.

“This is no more than a cynical rebranding exercise, the latest rearguard action by press proprietors and editors who want to defy the will of parliament and of the Leveson Inquiry," said Brian Cathcart, executive director of Hacked Off. They are determined to hold on to the power to bully the public without facing any consequences."

He added: "The body behind this is the Press Standards Board of Finance, a small, shadowy group of powerful press bosses who were condemned by Leveson for the cynical way they pretended for decades to run a regulator, but in fact secretly ensured that nothing it did would ever challenge their power. These same people are currently, through their lawyers, doing all in their power to stall the final approval of the royal charter based on Leveson and agreed by all parties in parliament on March 18."

He also vowed that "Hacked Off, their many supporters and the victims of press abuses will continue their campaign to bring them to book.”

E-mail: Georg.Szalai@THR.com

Twitter: @georgszalai