A scheme of third-party regulation of the British press in the form of a royal charter has been sealed by the privy-council, the first example of state intervention into the fiercely guarded domain of free speech in the U.K.

Most newspaper groups in the country have condemned the royal charter, the draft of which had received support from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democratic parties. A last minute legal attempt by publishers to block the charter was dismissed by the High Court, clearing the decks for the charter to be sealed.

The Royal Charter on Self Regulation of the Press envisages a regulator to be set up by the press, but monitored by a recognition panel, the members of which will be chosen by an independent appointments committee. The recognition panel will comprise between four and eight members but with no journalists, civil servants or members of Parliament on it.

The regulator will draw up a standards code that will protect freedom of speech but also watch over journalistic practices in getting information. The regulator could impose fines of one per cent of the publication’s turnover, capped at . It would also provide for speedy arbitration to deal with complaints against the press.

The royal charter is the government’s answer to Justice Leveson’s recommendation at the end of last year for an independent self-regulator for the press. This followed his investigation into press functioning after revelations emerged on the dubious methods of information-gathering employed by the tabloid weekly News of the World.

“Extraordinarily depressing and very very alarming,” is how Roger Alton, executive editor of the Times described the charter to the media. Fraser Nelson, Editor of Spectator called it a “deeply illiberal proposal.” The Daily Telegraph carried an editorial promising to continue the fight for press freedom and warning of a scenario where “politicians could conspire to attack the press”.

Signing up to the new scheme is voluntary, although those newspapers that remain outside could face crippling damages if they lose a case filed by a complainant.

The newspaper industry’s own charter was rejected by the privy council. They have put forward an alternative self-regulation scheme in which the regulator will be called the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

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