A 'poodle' with teeth: the new press watchdog explained
Armed with £1m fines, the planned newspaper regulator is 'tough', but will it safeguard or muzzle the media?
CULTURE secretary Maria Miller says Britain will have one of the toughest press regulators in the world under the plan put forward by the Prime Minister yesterday. But how will the new watchdog operate and will it muzzle a free press or provide an effective safeguard against media abuses?
What was wrong with the old system? The Press Complaints Commission could not impose fines on errant newspapers and was widely criticised for its lack of independence from media organisations. As a result, it was branded a "toothless poodle", says The Guardian.
Does the new 'poodle' have teeth? Sharp ones. The new watchdog has the power to order newspapers to publish front-page apologies and fine them up to £1 million. Unlike the PCC, its board won’t be stacked with editors, and media organisations won’t be able to challenge appointments to its board or interfere in its rulings.
Who are the new regulators? They will be selected by an appointments panel. Most of them will be "independent from the press", but there will be one serving editor and one person with "a current understanding and experience of the press" on the panel.
What types of media are covered by the new watchdog? Only media organisations that choose to "opt in" will be covered. They include newspapers, obviously, but also newspaper websites and "news-based websites" such as The Huffington Post. TV broadcasters' websites aren’t covered, neither are bloggers, tweeters and the publishers of "special interest and trade titles", says The Independent.
What the penalties for those who don’t opt in? Organisations that don’t join up face the prospect of hefty damages payments as a result of civil lawsuits. The Guardian points out this clause is "likely to face a legal challenge as opinion commissioned by the newspaper industry described it as incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights".
What’s the difference between a law and a royal charter? The new watchdog will be established by a royal charter, a formal document typically used to establish bodies such as universities. So it’s not law. But the royal charter setting up the watchdog "will be entrenched in statute so it cannot be changed by ministers". The only way it could be amended was if there is a two-thirds majority vote in both houses of parliament, says The Guardian. It’s a solution designed to satisfy those who oppose statutory underpinning and those who want it.
Who can make a complaint to the new watchdog? Aggrieved individuals, certainly, and probably groups. The PCC did not allow group complaints – from environmentalists or gay rights campaigners, for example – but The Guardian says the new body is "likely" to accept them. ·