By David Hass
The final draft of the Royal Charter for press self-regulation contained a package of further major concessions to the press. You may be forgiven for not registering this fact; the details were quickly buried in an avalanche of scare stories and general newspaper hostility. So it’s worth taking a moment to briefly record what was given away by politicians at five to midnight.
First, changes to the cornerstone of Leveson’s recommendations: the need for a recognised self-regulator to offer an arbitration service which gives free access to justice for people with valid legal complaints against newspapers, even if they do not have the resources to sue for libel. Instead of the High Court, an arbitration panel (similar to an employment tribunal) would swiftly and efficiently deal with claims at no cost to the complainant. Since the claim has to have legal merit, no nuisance complaints or simple requests for corrections would be able to clog up the system without the claimant being liable for the costs of the arbitration. The arbitration panel would have the power to provide the same redress (damages, printed judgments, binding assurances not to re-print and so on) as the courts if it was proved that people had been defamed or otherwise significantly damaged.
This crucial principle – free access to free arbitration – was diluted in the final text agreed by politicians last Friday. In order to deal with the concerns of the newspaper industry that this system would open the floodgates to thousands of claims (though this says little about newspapers’ confidence in their own work, and there is no evidence that this ‘floodgate effect’ would occur), the option of a “small” administrative fee has been made available to recognised self-regulators to discourage any trivial or vexatious claims.
Second, for the local and regional newspapers, the arbitration system could become optional, once they have tried it out. If regionals or locals are unhappy with the arbitration process, and the Recognition Panel is satisfied that their business is being damaged, a recognised self-regulator will have the ability to allow locals and regionals to opt-out. A version of this particular dilution of Leveson was in the draft charter drawn up by News International (now News UK), Telegraph Group and Associated Newspapers, rejected by ministers last Wednesday for lacking effectiveness and the necessary independence from the industry: but it has now been included into the cross-party plan.
Third, changes to the recognition requirement relating to the make-up of the Code Committee of any new regulator. The Code Committee is a group which has a key role in determining the rules which press self-regulators will apply. The effect of these changes is to water down the influence of independent people and working journalists on the committee and increase the influence of serving editors. Another change made by ministers, to seek to satisfy press industry lobby.
Many of the victims that Hacked Off represents are deeply concerned about these developments but are biting their tongues, on the basis that nearly a year on from Leveson, at least the politicians have agreed a final draft which will go to the Privy Council for sealing on 30 October. A deal is better than no deal.
But it must be borne in mind that this deal is not exactly what Leveson recommended. Any administration fee could dissuade some people with valid, reasonable claims against newspapers from coming forward. These further concessions prove that the newspaper industry has wielded huge influence on the political process from start to finish, in spite of its protests about being ‘locked out of the talks’, and it has succeeded in watering down the already sub-Leveson 18 March charter in a number of significant ways.
The victims, meanwhile, have still not been offered the opportunity to put their points directly to the Culture Secretary, despite months of requests, though she has evidently been in very close contact with newspaper bosses over the last week to try to get them to buy into the new package.
Perhaps it would be naïve to expect that the press might acknowledge or show some gratitude for these concessions, which reduce the ability of people to get redress when it is owed to them, and waters down the independence of what was already a modest and manageable plan for a proper complaints system. On top of the many other concessions handed out to the press since November, they serve to remind us that the newspaper industry’s view of negotiations is that unless everything flows their way, they are not prepared to play ball.
David Hass is Director of Communications for Hacked Off
This Blog was amended to correct a few ambiguities and further clarify the detail.