U.K. Newspaper Groups Mount Legal Challenge to Press Regulation Charter

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U.K. Culture Secretary Maria Miller

The Newspaper Society says its members united to issue an injunction to prevent the Privy Council in Parliament from rubber-stamping the Royal Charter proposals.

LONDON – The U.K. newspaper industry has united to apply for a court injunction to halt the parliamentary process the Royal Charter on press reform is currently going through.

The might of the British press has gathered to mount a legal challenge -- essentially a delaying tactic -- against the Privy Council's consideration of the Charter.

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The Privy Council is due to look at the press reform Royal Charter on Wednesday.

The Charter has been given the go-ahead by the three main political parties, and if it rubber-stamps the rules, the system will mean punitive penalties on publications that choose not to sign up.

The legal move by the print and online press giants comes as, across town in London, the criminal phone-hacking trial against the former CEO of News International and editor of the now-closed News of the World Rebekah Brooks, former communications adviser of British Prime Minister David Cameron and former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, along with six others, began in earnest Tuesday amid a media circus.

The newspaper industry has sought judicial review of a decision to reject its own version of a press regulation charter that a Privy Council subcommittee rejected earlier this month.

Publishers claim that the Parliamentarian-led Charter will allow political interference in the freedom of the press.

According to media reports in The Independent and The Guardian, culture secretary Maria Miller is hoping to persuade fellow members of Parliament from opposition parties to strengthen the Royal Charter's standing on preventing changes being made to the system by authoritarian future governments.

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The amendment requires that any future changes must be approved, not only by a two-thirds majority of both Houses of Parliament, but also by a two-thirds majority of the independent Recognition Panel overseeing the new press regulatory body.

In a joint statement, the Newspaper Society, the Newspaper Publishers Association, the Scottish Newspaper Society and the Professional Publishers Association said the process for the Royal Charter had been unfair.

"The failure of the Privy Council Committee to carry out a fair and transparent consultation on the industry's Royal Charter application was made even more significant by the fact that the possible involvement of the state in the regulation of the Press raised very serious constitutional issues," it said.

"Given the gravity of these constitutional issues, the industry's lawyers asked the Privy Council on Friday to give an undertaking that the rival cross-party Royal Charter, written by politicians and the Hacked Off [fronted by Hugh Grant] lobby group, would not be presented to the Queen for sealing on Wednesday," it added. "That request has been refused and an injunction will now be sought."

The Department of Culture, Media & Sport said it was "disappointed the press are undertaking legal action" after a long period of negotiations.

In a statement, it said: "The Industry Royal Charter was considered in an entirely proper and fair way by the Privy Council Committee, and the reasons they were unable to recommend its grant are in the public domain. Whilst they found acceptable areas, they identified fundamental issues that were not compatible with the Leveson principles, such as a lack of independence around appointments and funding and no requirement to provide an arbitration scheme. 

"The government is working to bring in a system of independent press self-regulation that will protect press freedom while offering real redress when mistakes are made. The culture secretary pushed hard for recent changes on arbitration and the standards code to be made, which will ensure the system is workable, and legal action is particularly disappointing in light of these changes."