Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

Charter a right Royal mess that will damage Press

Lord Justice Leveson
Lord Justice Leveson

A grubby stitch-up which hopefully is falling apart under the weight of its own contradictions. That's my tuppence worth on the new Royal Charter on Press Conduct, anyway.

A glorious mess, a total bodge job, each and every way you look at it.

First of all, where's the fairness? It's classic collective punishment; penalising the innocent because of the sins of a guilty few.

In this case, 1,100 regional newspapers will be faced with crippling burdens because of the crimes of a small number of London tabloids.

Off the top of my head I can name three solicitors in Northern Ireland who have been convicted of serious offences in recent years; these include inciting terrorists to commit murder, theft of £480,000 and attempted voyeurism. No one is suggesting that the entire legal profession of Northern Ireland be turned on its head or subjected to a witch-hunt because of the abhorrent activities of these few.

But journalism is intricately bound up with politics and is, therefore, pretty rough stuff and collective punishment is precisely what is happening.

The point is, however, that most elements of the shabby Cameron-Clegg-Miliband-Hacked Off deal are either wrong in principle, or likely to be unenforceable.

Take statutory underpinning – this 'red line' of principle has been crossed and the UK will now have a Press that is shackled by law and politicians. Even countries like Russia and Iran – strangers to our notions of liberal democracy – have raised eyebrows at the proposed changes. And dictators around the world are rejoicing.

The proposed system of exemplary damages on newspapers which choose not to join the system is not just unfair, but likely to be unenforceable under European human rights law.

The charter's proposed free arbitration service will financially cripple the weekly and regional newspapers.

The current code complaints system will be swept aside and any commonsense approach to errors and mistakes annihilated. I also predict that the powers to levy fines of up to £1m will place heavy compliance costs on small newspapers, which could tip many over the edge should they join.

The entire edifice of the charter will also cost many times more than the Press Complaints Commission and newspapers will have to pay.

None of this will prevent errant and reckless publishing on the internet.

Are they going to shackle bedroom bloggers and foreign news outlets, too?

The irony of it all is that even Lord Justice Leveson did not want this.

His report made clear that any regulatory model "should not provide an added burden to the regional and local Press".

These are unintended consequences, indeed.

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