Parts of the press have today published a draft Royal Charter which they say they prefer to the one that was approved by all parties in Parliament last month – the one closely based on the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry.
On the basis of this charter they say they will reject the will of Parliament, of the Leveson Inquiry and of the public, as shown in polls they refuse to publish.
Their charter is a carefully disguised effort to resurrect something like the infamous Hunt-Black plan, rejected both by Lord Justice Leveson and by David Cameron as falling far short of what is needed to give the public confidence in a press regulation system.
Here are 10 questions raised by their charter, and 10 answers.
1. Why, in the press barons’ charter, aren’t party political peers excluded from top jobs in the regulatory system?
The Royal Charter approved by Parliament in March has a range of provisions to prevent political interference in the regulation process (and so to prevent any question of ‘state regulation’) yet here the press barons are ready to allow political peers to be in charge of their regulator, just as political peers were allowed to run the discredited Press Complaints Commission.
It is relevant that four of the five chairs of the PCC have been peers working for their parties in the House of Lords. The current chair is a former Conservative minister who routinely supports his party in the Lords. The current head of the industry’s finance body is another working Tory peer. This surely represents inappropriate political interference with the press. Don’t the editors and proprietors care about that?
2. Why do the press barons think an arbitration service should be optional?
In the Royal Charter approved by Parliament, the self-regulator must provide such a service, which means that members of the public who have legal claims against newspapers (say for libel or breach of privacy) can have cheap, quick and fair legal remedy. (Very few people can afford to take a newspaper to court.) The press barons just don’t want to be accountable, and they are ready to deny members of the public access to justice.
3. Why, in the press barons’ charter, is there a member of the appointments committee of the recognition body whose job is to represent the interests of the press?
This body is supposed to act on the public’s behalf to ensure that the new press self-regulator is not ‘captured’ by the industry. There are no grounds for having somebody on the panel trying to ensure it favours the interests of newspapers.
4. Why, in the press barons’ charter, do members of the recognition body have to have experience of the press industry?
Again, this body represents the interests of the public, so it is inappropriate for the press to place ‘spies in the cab’. In any case the job of the recognition body must be rigorously NOT about journalism because that way it might start interfering with journalistic freedoms. Its only job is to determine whether a regulator is effective and independent, in line with set criteria, so the expertise it needs should be about what makes a good regulator. The press barons clearly want their influence all over it.
5. Why do the press barons say that their regulator can only ‘require’ remedial action by papers found to be at fault, when the Royal Charter approved by Parliament says that the regulator can ‘direct’ corrections and apologies?
There might not seem to be much difference, but ‘directing’ corrections means saying where they should go. In other words, the press barons don’t want their regulator to be able to order a paper to give a correction appropriate prominence. They want to be free to go on burying corrections in the corners of back pages.
6. Why should complaints by representative groups (where for example there is no single individual affected by an inaccurate report) have to pass the test of being ‘significant’ and ‘substantial’ when other complaints don’t?
Editors have never liked the idea that if they publish gross inaccuracies about whole groups of people (such as Muslims or the disabled or bloggers) somebody might call them to account. But inaccuracies like this can be harmful and should be heard. (And the Royal Charter approved by Parliament ensures that the regulator doesn’t have to deal with lobbying, complaints about matters of opinion or trivial complaints.)
7. Why should there be an editor on the Appointments Panel for the board of the regulator?
If this body is to command public confidence it has to be seen as independent and impartial. There can be no room for editors to shape and influence its work.
8. Why should there be a majority of editors on the code committee?
The Royal Charter approved by Parliament has a code committee made up of one-third editors, one-third working journalists and one-third lay people. But here the editors want the working journalists out of the picture and want to be able to dominate the code as they have in the past. And as all complaints to the regulator must relate to the code, a weak code means that complaints become more difficult to make stick.
9. Why should PressBof become the Recognition Commission, instead of the independent commission envisaged by Leveson?
In the press charter, the little-known committee of newspaper barons known as PressBof, which held all the real power at the PCC by controlling the finances, will be the Recognition Panel initially, and effectively the owner of the Charter thereafter.
10. Why is there to be an the Industry Funding Body, when Leveson said there should not be one?
This is simply a new version of PressBof. The press barons‘ charter again seeks to give this body huge influence, albeit disguised. For example, it would control the funding of the recognition body – in other words it will have a stranglehold on the body that is meant to represent the interests of the public.