On Thursday, the Prime Minister David Cameron walked out of cross-party talks on the implementation of the recommendations from the Leveson inquiry into the ‘Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press’. He announced that negotiations between the parties had failed and that he was moving directly to a vote on a Royal Charter published by the Conservative party. The next day, an alternative Royal Charter released by Labour and Liberal Democrat parties but also backed by politicians from all parties was published. On Monday 18 March, the House of Commons will have a chance to vote on both of these proposals. It is an historic moment in media reform in the UK and one that needs careful and critical interrogation.
On first glance the two Royal Charters look rather similar. But the devil really is in the detail – and the Press lawyer’s know this. There are some crucial differences between the two proposals which make the cross-party charter a significantly better reflection of Leveson's proposals than Cameron's Charter.
Here are some of the key reasons that MPs should be persuaded to choose the cross-party charter on Monday:
- 1: Cameron’s Charter gives the press proprietors a veto over appointments to the ‘independent’ Board of the new self-regulator as a single press editor on the appointments panel will be able to exercise the negative power to prevent their opponents joining the Board and ensure they get their cronies on it. Once again, we could be faced with the Press ‘marking their own homework’.
- The Cross-Party Charter removes the need for a unanimous decision from the appointment panel and so prevents a press veto and enables a genuinely independent Board to be formed.
- 2: Cameron’s Charter gives serving editors almost complete power over the Journalist’s Code of Conduct. We know from experience of the now discredited Press Complaints Commission that a new self-regulator would be seriously undermined by a weak and ineffective Code. In effect this means that not only would the Press be marking their own homework they would be setting the questions too.
- The Cross-Party Charter gives serving editors, working journalists and members of the public equal responsibility for the Code with the Board of the self-regulator giving final approval as part of the recognition process. Only the Cross-Party Charter meets Leveson’s requirement for independence and effectiveness.
- 3: Cameron’s Charter says that the regulator can ‘require’ a newspaper to publish the nature, extent and placement of an apology. However, government lawyers have advised that to ‘require’ is not strong enough in law – the Press clearly know this.
- In the Cross-Party Charter the self-regulator will have the power to ‘direct’ apologies – this is legally enforceable and will prevent the Press from burying apologies out of sight.
- 4: Cameron’s Charter makes no provision for the nature of investigations of press abuse. During the Leveson enquiry the press proposed a process of investigation that was so tortuous that Leveson said it was unlikely to ever reach a conclusion. This is vital. If no conclusion is reached no significant fines will ever be made no deterrence will be in place against abuses of power and the press will once more be able to get away with foul play.
- The Cross-Party Charter states that the investigations process has to be simple and credible. This will promote good journalism.
- 5: Cameron’s Charter can be changed by the Privy Council (including current Cabinet Ministers susceptible to press pressure). Although the Charter says that any changes will require a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons, legal advice states that this cannot be enforced without legislation. This means that Cameron’s Charter effectively allows executive interference in the so-called ‘self-regulation’ of the Press at any time.
- The Cross-Party Charter will prevent any whimsical interference by a few ministers to amend/dissolve a Charter through making the requirement for changes to carry a two-thirds majority effective in law. Without this, ‘protecting the freedom on the press’ is merely empty rhetoric.
- 6: In Cameron’s Charter, if the system of self-regulation fails, or significant newspapers leave the voluntary self-regulator there is no provision to do anything.
- The Cross-Party Charter places a duty on the Recognition Panel that overseas the self-regulatory body to make a report to Parliament in the event of self-regulatory failure and so initiate a process to resolve the issue. Without this there is no fail-safe mechanism and the whole thing could just fall apart.
- 7: Cameron’s Charter only includes a one-off opportunity to review the operation of the new arbitration process proposed and address any concerns from small publications, the regional press or ordinary people.
- In the Cross-Party Charter there is a consultation about arbitration at each cyclical review to ensure the Arbitration system is future-proofed and remains fit-for-purpose.
- 8: Cameron’s Charter gives the Recognition Panel the power to conduct an exceptional review for Code breaches. This paves the way for interfering with content – this is clearly a job for the self-regulator.
- The Cross-Party Charter ensures that exceptional reviews can only happen when the issues under consideration relate to the Recognition criteria; in other words are concerned with process not content.
- The vote on Monday will be won by a very tight margin either way with the minority parties playing a key role. These somewhat legalistic yet vitally important distinctions will decide whether the future self-regulation of the press is worth the paper it is written on or whether, yet again, the Press Barons have managed to make sure they are the ones pulling all the strings.