By Professor Brian Cathcart (@briancathcart)
The Royal Charter on Self-Regulation of the Press was sealed on 30 October 2013. It has widespread public and political support. And, most importantly, it is better for journalists than the newspaper proprietors’ latest regulatory fig leaf, IPSO. There are three key reasons for this.
1. The Royal Charter system has far better safeguards against political interference than IPSO
The Charter explicitly and effectively prevents governments from interfering in the self-regulation of the press. Governments cannot influence policy, funding or appointments in any way or under any circumstances. Nor can party politicians hold jobs in the self-regulation system – as they have done at the PCC and will be able to do at IPSO. (Almost all of the PCC chairs have been working party politicians, and for the past five years so has the chair of PressBoF, the shadowy committee of newspaper bosses who pull the PCC’s strings. When they designed IPSO, PressBoF had the option of excluding working politicians, as Leveson recommended, but they deliberately chose not to.)
Critics of the Charter system have suggested it could be a ‘slippery slope’ towards state control of press regulation. This is wrong; the system incorporates strong safeguards against slippage. Unlike other Royal Charters this one cannot be quietly amended at the behest of ministers; instead any change to its terms requires open discussion in Parliament and the assent of a two-thirds majority in both Houses – something no modern government has been able to command. And if Parliament ever agreed changes that the industry disagreed with, publishers could pull the plug on the whole system.
2. The Royal Charter system gives journalists and publishers unprecedented protection from ‘chilling’ by rich litigants – but IPSO does not
For more than a generation ‘chilling’ has been a leading threat to good journalism and to freedom of expression in the UK. This was most vividly highlighted in the case of Robert Maxwell, who for years used his wealth and legal clout to block the exposure of his wrongdoings. And chilling remains a blight today, even for small, local news publishers. The Royal Charter system will remove this threat by obliging even the richest and most powerful complainants to use cheap arbitration in cases of alleged libel and breach of privacy – and if they refuse and insist on going to the High Court then they, the complainants, must bear all the costs, whether they win or lose.
The benefits for journalists can be far-reaching. Editors need never again spike a story on the grounds that the cost of defending it would be prohibitive. Powerful corporations should no longer be able to intimidate publishers by threatening them with legal actions lasting years and costing six-figure sums. Investigative reporters, be they on national newspapers or writing local blogs, can be liberated from legal bullying.
In contrast, IPSO offers only a continuation of the present position – in other words, more chilling and more spiked stories.
3. The Royal Charter offers journalism the chance to draw a line under recent scandals and win back public trust – but IPSO does not
The overwhelming majority of decent journalists did not hack phones, bribe police officers, steal private data or libel the McCanns and Christopher Jefferies, but they are tainted by association just as people have been in other industries and institutions affected by grave wrongdoing. The Royal Charter offers a golden opportunity for journalists to show the public that the industry has learned the necessary lessons and is ready and willing to prevent such collapses in standards in the future.
The Royal Charter enjoys overwhelming public trust and has compelling legitimacy. It is the fruit of a painstaking, formal public inquiry by a senior judge and is backed – remarkably – by every single party in Parliament. More than that, it has the confidence of leading victims of press abuses and of hundreds of the most prominent people working in the world of free expression.
IPSO, by contrast, is the creation of many of the same proprietors and editors who were responsible for the worst scandals, and despite changes to the window-dressing it is the same system as the discredited PCC, which failed to tackle abuses by powerful national newspaper groups.
A further point
The Royal Charter system poses no threat to freedom of expression in the UK or to the ability of journalists to play their full part in sustaining an open and vibrant democracy. The Recognition Panel established under the Charter does not regulate journalism; its sole job is to assess whether self-regulators set up by news publishers meet basic Leveson standards. Self-regulators alone may engage in policing the code of practice, and the Leveson standards lay down explicitly that self-regulators ‘should not have the power to prevent publication of any material, by anyone, at any time’. For reasons 1 and 2 above, journalists should be more free and not less free under the Royal Charter to expose wrongdoing by the powerful and the rich, without fear or favour.
For an overview of the Royal Charter System see The New UK Model of Press Regulation, Hugh Tomlinson QC, LSE Media Policy Brief No.12.
This post originally appeared on the Inforrm blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks.