U.K. Newspaper Groups Divided Over Press Regulation Charter

Rupert Murdoch

"Beverly Hills, other burbs, very different to 2008 when smothered in Obama bumper stickers, now hard to find."

News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch tweets about Monday's agreement, while others criticize the role of Hugh Grant and an activist group he supports.

LONDON - Following Monday's presentation of a tough new press regulation charter in the British parliament, some newspaper publishers continue to make noise about possible legal challenges or the start of an alternative regulatory system, while others look ready to accept it.

Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. has so far said that it was studying the planned regulator, which could put fines of $1.5 million on publishers running afoul of a code of conduct and force them to run prominent apologies. But Murdoch himself took to Twitter late Tuesday to comment on Monday's all-party agreement to introduce the new regulator via a so-called royal charter rather than via a regular law.

"UK Royal Charter requires Queen's signature," Murdoch tweeted. "Unlikely without full all party support. Queen doesn't do politics."

Given that the press regulation deal had the support of all British parties, observers on Wednesday took the comment as a toned-down expression of concern and criticism. It was the latest signal that his company could oppose the proposed regulator after the Sun tabloid had on Tuesday criticized the regulation attempt with comparisons to the totalitarian regime described in George Orwell's "1984."

While the Guardian and Financial Times have previously signaled they would be willing to accept a tougher press regulator, others have also signaled discontent.

The Daily Telegraph's deputy editor, Benedict Brogan, has spoken out in favor of the formation of an alternative regulator by newspapers opposed to the royal charter. The Guardian quoted him as saying: "For my part - and this is a personal view – I've concluded that we should note the outcome, thank the politicians for their engagement, and quietly but firmly decline to take part."

Fraser Nelson, the editor of the weekly Spectator, said his publication also opposed the press regulation deal struck in weekend negotiations. "It's not something the Spectator feels like signing up to," he said.

Political sources cited by the Guardian argued though that most of the newspaper industry would eventually sign up to the new press regulation system, citing financial incentives and a YouGov poll that showed that 81 percent of people asked want the press to co-operate with a tougher new regulatory regime.

Big newspaper groups are believed to have sought legal advice. The Guardian said they may challenge a clause in the press regulation charter that calls for punitive damages for publishers that don't sign up for the new regulatory system and end up publishing inaccurate or libelous material. 

Meanwhile, some politicians have acknowledged that the key role of activist group Hacked Off, which is supported by the likes of Hugh Grant, in finalizing the press regulation deal is making it harder to win over newspaper owners for the new regulation system. Hacked Off members reportedly joined the opposition Labour Party in the office of its leader as the parties hammered out a final agreement in the early morning hours of Monday.

The Guardian quoted communities secretary Eric Pickles as referring to Grant as "the leader of the opposition, Lord Grant of Rodeo Drive."

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com

Twitter: @georgszalai