Hacked Off, and the victims of press abuses for which it speaks, have three principled objections to the use of a Royal Charter instead of legislation in relation to the underpinning of a regulatory recognition body.
1. It is undemocratic. This is a shameless recourse to the royal prerogative when democratic, parliamentary means are available – and would be far more credible and appropriate given what is at stake. This is happening for no other reason than to accommodate editors and proprietors – the very editors and proprietors who stand convicted by a public inquiry both of “wreaking havoc in the lives of innocent people” and of concealing their wrongdoing behind the facade of a sham regulator. The political process is thus bowing down to the power of a press which has been found to operate far too often against the public interest.
2. It departs from the Leveson process. Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations are for a recognition body underpinned by statute, and he rightly describes this as essential. These recommendations were the outcome of a year-long public inquiry undertaken by the judge, in part because politicians were effectively obliged, on account of their record of dealings with the press, to recuse themselves from the case. To engage now in the use of Royal Charter flies in the face of the principle that underlay the inquiry and is a violation of the principles of independence and transparency clearly set out by the judge.
3. It is without justification. The only reason given to date for not implementing the recommendations in regard to underpinning was the prime minister’s: “For the first time we would have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land”. This has been revealed to be incorrect in the Commons by Jack Straw MP, who made clear that if there was such a Rubicon it was crossed in 1998 in the Human Rights Act. Since this correction stands unchallenged there is no reason in principle not to implement the underpinning recommendation.
Hacked Off has the following further objections to the use of Royal Charter.
Our strong suspicion is that the Royal Charter is being adopted by ministers as a device to enable editors and proprietors to escape effective accountability. Every signal from editors since the publication of the Leveson Report shows them distancing themselves from the recommendations while paying lip service to them. Thus they announce: “We accept the clear majority of Lord Justice Leveson’s main recommendations…” They are picking and choosing.
In this endeavour the editors have had the assistance of the Prime Minister, who defined for them five “Leveson Principles’ that are so bland that the Hunt/Black proposals so discredited by Leveson would probably have accorded with them. The true Leveson principles are more exacting – they are the recommendations themselves – and it is these that editors are desperate to obscure or dilute. They are busy contriving language and excuses that will deliver them a weak regulator on the lines of the PCC. In other words they are working towards a further round in the Last Chance Saloon.
A recognition body that is Leveson-compliant must, by definition, be established by Parliament. Further, it needs a set of clear tests by which to judge whether any new self-regulator will truly serve the public interest. This process is vital in protecting British people in future from the kinds of cruelty and abuse suffered by the Dowlers, Watsons, Bernals, McCanns, Bowleses, Christopher Jefferies, the Liverpool Hillsborough families and many, many others.
Those clear tests were set out by Leveson, not as a set of five principles, but as a list of recommendations. In a Royal Charter they risk being quietly neutered, at the convenience of political leaders and editors. The proper way to ensure that they are incorporated in the operating rules of the recognition body is to have them enshrined in law.
A Bill placed before Parliament, incorporating as a schedule Leveson’s criteria for independent, effective regulation, is the best way of ensuring that the outcome of this long process of press scrutiny is one that serves the interests of the British people and not those of editors and proprietors whose disgraceful actions made that scrutiny necessary.