UK abandons law punishing papers that refuse to join regulator


London (AFP)

The British government on Thursday abandoned measures drawn up in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal to punish newspapers that refuse to join a government-approved press regulator.

Culture Secretary Matt Hancock told parliament that the government will seek to repeal legislation forcing news organisations that didn't sign up to pay all the costs of libel and privacy suits against them, even if they won.

Hancock warned against laws that "would lead to a press that is fettered and not free", and said that punishing media groups even if they won was "no way to organise a system of press regulation".

The so-called Section 40 measure targeted news groups that refused to join new regulator IMPRESS, which was introduced after the 2011 phone-hacking scandal.

It was intended as an incentive to make sure newspapers signed up to the new system but has been condemned as a threat to press freedom -- and failed to achieve its purpose.

Only around 50 organisations are members of IMPRESS, while around 2,500 have joined the unofficial IPSO regulator.

Labour's shadow culture secretary Tom Watson called it a "bitter blow to the victims of press intrusion", saying that newspapers had been "lobbying hard" for the repeal.

Hancock also announced that the government had abandoned the second part of the Leveson Inquiry, which was set up in 2011 following revelations that News of the World journalists had hacked phones, including those of royalty and murdered teenager Milly Dowler.

The scandal led media mogul Rupert Murdoch to shut down the 168-year-old paper.

The first part of the inquiry recommended a complete overhaul of the system of press self-regulation.

Part two was intended to look at wrongdoing, including the failure of initial police investigations to expose the problem.

"We do not believe that this costly and time-consuming public inquiry is the right way forward," said Hancock, to cries of "shame" from the opposition benches.

"The world has changed since the Leveson Inquiry was established in 2011," he added.

"Since then we've seen a seismic change in the media landscape."

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) is funded by the newspaper industry and critics say it will not be tough enough on Britain's sometimes unruly press.

However, critics of the government-backed regulator argue that the new system would allow governments to erode press freedom.