by Brian Cathcart
Here’s a paradox: with vital votes due in Parliament on Monday, the people who run our biggest national newspapers are backing a press regulation system in which serving cabinet ministers would have a legal right to meddle whenever they liked.
David Cameron’s Royal Charter, like all Royal Charters, is a plaything of the Privy Council, which is a committee of politicians including serving ministers. In the official language, where there is a Charter there is ‘a significant degree of government regulation of the affairs of the body’.
This could be fixed by a simple clause of statute – a clause which need not even mention the press or regulation or this particular charter by name. But because Cameron and his friends in the press have an allergy to statute they won’t accept that. They reject any legislative ‘underpin’.
So they find themselves telling us that, in the interests of press freedom, we should support a plan that puts press regulation under the control of politicians – in flagrant conflict with everything Lord Justice Leveson proposed.
What this paradox tells us is that Cameron and his friends at News International, the Mail and the Telegraph papers care far less about making the press free from political interference than they do about the other important distinguishing features of the Cameron Royal Charter – the features that protect the freedom of editors to act unaccountably.
At least a dozen aspects of the Cameron Charter are designed to shield newspapers from basic regulatory requirements that are normal for most people and most institutions in 21st century Britain. They are requirements which, back in July 2011 when the Leveson Inquiry was set up amid outrage over the Milly Dowler phone hacking, the whole country was demanding for the press.
- Lord Justice Leveson said in his report that the press should have ‘independent self-regulation’, but the Cameron Charter says that the press can veto all appointments to the board. So it would not be independent.
- Instead of creating a better complaints system, the Cameron Charter would allow a new self-regulator in many cases to pick and choose which complaints it would address.
- Instead of giving the self-regulator the power to tell a paper it must publish a correction to a false article on the same page that the article appeared, the Cameron Charter would allow editors to go on burying corrections and apologies on page 94.
- Instead of setting up a system capable of stepping in after catastrophic failures such as the McCann affair to investigate what has gone wrong, Cameron’s Charter would set up a self-regulator incapable of mounting an investigation that would challenge big papers.
- Instead of giving the self-regulator teeth in the form of sanctions such as fines, Cameron’s Charter would give big newspapers so many ways of dodging fines that they would probably never happen.
- And Cameron’s Charter would allow editors to go on writing their own rule-book – the code of practice for journalists – so that, if ever the self-regulator tried to flex its few muscles and enforce the rules, the editors could fix it that the rules weren’t worth enforcing.
In short, Cameron is proposing a system in which the press escapes accountability, and in doing so he and his press friends are ready to expose press regulation to political interference by ministers. These are not the actions of genuine supporters of press freedom.
On Monday MPs and peers will vote on these matters. They should reject the Cameron Charter and endorse the Leveson recommendations on regulation in whatever form they are tabled. Leveson’s proposal is moderate, workable and – unlike the Cameron scheme – no threat to press freedom.
(A note on the statutory underpinning of Charter. The Conservatives have admitted that such an underpin is necessary in law, if the Charter body is to have protection from ministerial interference. Oliver Letwin, Cameron’s policy minister, actually had one drafted by government officials. Here it is, published for the first time, and dated 28 December 2012. It is unnecessarily complex. After receiving an angry letter from editors and proprietors on January 4, however, Letwin obediently dropped this underpin. You can read that letter here.)
Brian Cathcart is director of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart.