A Royal Charter (the “Charter“) representing a landmark reform of press regulation was approved by the Queen on 30 October 2013. The Charter, agreed by the three main political parties, was sealed by the Privy Council in a short private ceremony at Buckingham Palace hours after the Court of Appeal rejected a last-minute legal effort by newspaper groups to block it. The Charter aims to establish a new framework for independent press regulation, following the recent phone-hacking scandal and Lord Justice Leveson’s subsequent report which condemned newspapers for wreaking ”havoc in the lives of innocent people.” The new system of regulation set out in the Charter is voluntary and media organisations will be free to choose whether to sign up to it or not.
On 30 October 2013, the four trade bodies representing newspapers and magazines currently regulated by The Press Complaints Commission (the “PCC”), applied for an interim injunction ahead of the Privy Council’s meeting to stop the Charter being sealed. However, the High Court refused the publishers’ application for the injunction as well as their application for a judicial review of the Privy Council’s decision on 8 October 2013 rejecting the industry’s own alternative charter. This was dismissed on the grounds that the alternative charter failed to comply with particular principles arising from the Leveson report including access to arbitration and independence. Following the High Court’s refusal, the publishers made a last-ditch attempt and took the case to the Court of Appeal to get the High Court rulings overturned. However, the Court of Appeal refused to grant an interim order.
This most recent development follows months of discussion between industry and lawmakers on how to establish a scheme of independent press regulation. Supporters of the Charter maintain that the newspaper industry has been unsuccessful in regulating itself effectively thus far, epitomised by the phone-hacking scandal. Further, they consider that the Charter provides adequate penalties and a legal framework to provide effective self-regulation. Conversely, critics have argued that the government-backed Charter weakens the freedom of the press by granting political interference. In an effort to appease the press, the Charter was amended with a last minute concession to address one of the press’s biggest anxieties, including a provision intended to curb Parliament’s power to amend the Charter in future; any change would necessitate not only a two-thirds majority of both Houses of Parliament but, in addition, the unanimous agreement of the recognition panel established to oversee a new press regulator.
The system advanced by the Charter will work by establishing a new regulator with extensive powers. Furthermore, a watchdog – the Recognition Panel – will be established to ensure the regulator’s continued independence. The regulator, to be established by the press but without any editors on the board, will assemble a standards code and will have the ability to levy fines up to £1m. It will also set up a prompt arbitration service to handle complaints. Those who choose not to join the voluntary system risk exemplary damages if they lose a libel case. They may also be liable to pay the complainant’s costs, irrespective of whether they win or lose. Under the Charter’s system, news organisations will initially engage with any complainant through an arbitration system. Any complainants who choose court action without arbitration may have to pay the media organisations.
Despite these incentives, it remains to be seen whether the press will in fact sign up to the new system – possibly they will prefer to forgo the advantages of being within the voluntary scheme in favour of retaining independence. During the summer of 2013, some newspaper groups suggested a new Independent Press Standards Organisation (“IPSO”) to replace the PCC. The establishment of IPSO is proceeding, with the appointment on 5 November 2013 of former civil servant Sir Hayden Phillips as the chairman of the appointment panel for the board of IPSO.
To view the final version of the Charter, click here.
 the Newspaper Publishers Association, the Newspaper Society, the Scottish Newspaper Society and the Professional Publishers Association