Public Affairs

Regional press regulation

main ipade newspaper agendaNi analyses the state of play of press regulation in Northern Ireland.

Why is press regulation devolved?

Unlike broadcasting, the issue was not specifically held back by Parliament when the devolution settlement was drawn up. The press had previously regulated its own conduct and regulation did not become a live issue until the Leveson inquiry was set up in 2011.

What is planned in Britain?

A royal charter on press regulation was drafted by the main Westminster parties in March 2013 and finalised last October. This initially covered England and Wales but has also been accepted by the Scottish Parliament.

A new press regulator (replacing the Press Complaints Commission) will be appointed by the industry but its board cannot include political or media representatives. The regulator must set up a robust code of conduct, provide advice to the public and the press, and ensure “adequate and speedy” complaints processes. It will also have the power to direct the “nature, extent and placement” of corrections and apologies when a publisher and complainant cannot agree on these.

Where a serious breach occurs, a fine can be imposed i.e. up to 1 per cent of the publisher’s annual turnover. The regulator will be overseen by a recognition panel, established through a formal public appointments process. The panel can withdraw official recognition if the regulator fails to meet its commitments under the charter. Implementation is expected by late 2015.

Publishers of news-related material will be regulated. The regulator cannot compel publishers to sign up to its code. However, publishers who opt in may have their damages reduced in media law cases. Book publishers, trade and leisure-related magazines, academic journals, and general newsletters will be exempt from regulation.

What are the alternatives?

The Newspaper Society would prefer that the regulator had no power to direct apologies and that it included press representatives (independent members may have no working knowledge of the media). The National Union of Journalists favours the Republic’s model which has no involvement from government: a press council supported by a press ombudsman who considers complaints.

What has happened here?

The status quo remains. The then Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, wrote to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment on 13 July 2011 to consult it on the terms of reference for the Leveson inquiry. This letter was referred to OFMDFM and was still with the department on 11 October 2011 when ministers answered a written question.

OFMDFM has not made a decision on the issue but the DUP and Sinn Féin are known to favour tighter press regulation. The other main parties are more cautious as Leveson also highlighted failings by political representatives. The UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport has kept the Executive updated on the charter but maintains that the final decision rests with Stormont. Publishers in Northern Ireland are free to join the royal charter scheme if they wish but there is no financial incentive; the law to waive damages has not been accepted by the Assembly.

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