The National Union of Journalists (NUJ), Hacked Off and other reform campaigners have welcome to cross-party agreement that will introduce a new press regulator to supplant the discredited Press Complaints Commission - while warning that a conscience clause for journalists, ownership issues and other concerns related to the development of a genuinely free and democratic media still need to be addressed.
The journalists' union has described the agreement as "a significant step on the road" to a credible system of press regulation, but warned that the NUJ and the wider public must have a genuine role in developing the code and in the new regulatory framework.
Michelle Stanistreet, the NUJ's general secretary, said last night (18 March 2013): "There are elements in the new framework which can be welcomed – the NUJ has long campaigned for a regulator that is genuinely independent of the industry and the state, one that has teeth and powers of investigation. The editors pushed hard to have a veto over membership of the regulator, and it is good news that their intensive lobbying to keep power in their own hands has been seen off.
"The NUJ believes that co-regulation is vital. We welcome recognition of the principle that working journalists and members of the public should be involved in the drawing up of the standards code. The great failure of the PCC, as recognised by Leveson, was that it represented the interests of only the editors and proprietors and operated like an old boys' club. Journalists below the rank of editor had no input and there was no real attempt at public engagement.
"Now we need agreement from the new regulator to introduce a conscience clause for journalists, as part of the code, to protect them from being forced to act unethically – this was supported Lord Leveson in his recommendations.
"The cross-party charter marks an important improvement on Cameron's plans, by allowing third party complaints to the regulator, subject to discretion to reject vexatious complainants. The failure by the PCC to take up third party complaints has meant that some of the most vulnerable, such as asylum seekers, have been subject to unchecked vilification by parts of the press.
"The NUJ hopes the industry can build on the political consensus and focus on ensuring the new framework is effective. The editors of the Guardian, the Independent and the Financial Times have all conceded the necessity for some form of statutory underpinning to ensure the independence of the new body. It should not be beyond the collective imagination of all involved to devise a structure which is inclusive and effective without causing the sky to fall in, the foundations of the free press crumble or, to quote the Guardian leader writer, cause John Milton to spin in his grave.
"The whole process following the publication of the Leveson report has been unedifying. Meetings with the industry and government have taken part behind closed doors, despite Lord Leveson saying that transparency was important. All along, parts of the industry have been doing all they can to resist change and the challenge to the status quo which has allowed them for so long to mark their own homework. The NUJ agrees that the regulator should have the power to "direct" rather than "require" corrections and apologies; this is an important distinction. It is also important the body will have the power to investigate allegations of press abuse or unethical practices.
"Above all, we should not forget why we are where we are. Elements of the press became too powerful, believed they were above the law and could make politicians cower by threats to turn them over personally and to discredit their party's policies. The real issue that needs to be addressed is the ownership structure that has placed huge swathes of our media in the hands of individuals and corporations whose interests are dominated by their commercial interests, not by those of press freedom or quality journalism.
"This cross-party agreement enables the development of new structures and a new code and is therefore welcome. For journalists and for the wider public there are many other issues regarding media ownership and control which also need to be addressed," said Ms Stanistreet.
Hacked Off said: "[We] welcome the cross-party agreement on implementing the Leveson recommendations on press self-regulation that was reached last night. We look forward to seeing Parliament finally have its say on these matters later this afternoon.
"The Royal Charter that they have accepted will introduce a new system that will protect the freedom of the press and at the same time protect the public from the kinds of abuses that made the Leveson Inquiry necessary.
"All parties are now clearly behind Leveson’s recommendations for an independent self-regulator that will deal fairly with complaints and will ensure that corrections are given due prominence. It will be able to mount effective investigations and where appropriate impose meaningful sanctions. It will offer an arbitration service that is free for the public to access, and there will be no press veto on who runs it.
"This is what Lord Justice Leveson recommended in November after a long inquiry in which he heard the views of every relevant group. He did not recommend the use of Royal Charter and we believe Charter is second best, but we believe that this charter can effectively deliver his proposals on self-regulation.
"The Charter will be protected by a minimal clause of statute. This protection is needed because royal charter bodies are normally closely overseen by the Privy Council, a committee of ministers. In other words, without that clause of statute, politicians would be free to meddle with the new self-regulation system.
"We regret that it has taken four months to reach this point, but we are grateful to politicians of all of the leading parties for their efforts in bringing about this agreement. They have acted despite the scaremongering of powerful newspaper groups which had their say at the inquiry and didn’t like the outcome. Some papers have grossly misrepresented the Leveson Report and continue to do so."
* A free press: sidelining the threat of private and corporate power: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18192
* More on Leveson from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/leveson