Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Hot off the press: Royal Charter leaves media cold

The newspaper industry's alternative to the misguided Royal Charter safeguards Britain's 300-year-old free Press tradition

Lord Justice Leveson called for 'voluntary independent self-regulation'
Lord Justice Leveson called for 'voluntary independent self-regulation'
Hugh Grant. The Royal Charter was 'stitched up at 2am over takeaway pizzas' by politicians and celebrity lobby group Hacked Off, says Lynne Anderson
Hugh Grant. The Royal Charter was 'stitched up at 2am over takeaway pizzas' by politicians and celebrity lobby group Hacked Off, says Lynne Anderson
Lynne Anderson
Lynne Anderson

When Lord Justice Leveson published his report on the 'culture, practices and ethics of the Press', he called for "voluntary independent self-regulation".

The deal stitched up at 2am over takeaway pizzas by a group of politicians and the celebrity lobby group Hacked Off is far from voluntary, it isn't independent and it certainly isn't self-regulation.

The newspapers and magazines it seeks to regulate – including the 1,100 regional and local papers exonerated by the Leveson Inquiry – weren't even told the meeting was taking place.

There has been no parliamentary scrutiny, or consultation, with the industry, or the public, on the terms of the state-sponsored Royal Charter.

It would allow politicians to interfere with the regulation of the very voices which are meant to hold them to account on behalf of their readers.

Not a single newspaper or magazine is willing to sign up to it.

Royal Charters are intended to enable an industry to come together to regulate itself for the good of the public. They are not intended as an instrument for the state to use to impose regulation on an unwilling industry.

The Queen, therefore, faces the prospect of being asked to give her assent on May 15 to a Royal Charter which is highly controversial, has no support from the industry it seeks to control and has been condemned by human rights groups and freedom of expression campaigners around the world.

Britain's Press accepts the need for a completely new system of self-regulation and for a new Press regulator to be recognised by a genuinely independent body.

In order to get a new regulator up and running and break the stalemate, the whole industry has now agreed to apply for an Independent Royal Charter to establish and recognise a new system of tough and independent Press self-regulation.

So what does this new Independent Royal Charter offer the public?

• Tough sanctions, with the new regulator having the power to impose fines of up to £1m for systematic wrongdoing;

• Up-front corrections, with inaccuracies corrected fully and prominently;

• Strong investigative powers enabling the regulator to investigate wrongdoing and call editors to account;

• Genuine independence from the industry and from politicians, with all the bodies making up the new regulator having a majority of independent members appointed openly and transparently; and

• Public involvement in the framing of the Code of Practice, which binds national and local newspapers and magazines.

How is this Independent Royal Charter different from the Government Royal Charter?

1. Public consultation: The Government is refusing any form of public consultation on their Royal Charter. As a state-sponsored Royal Charter, they say there is no need for consultation.

The Independent Royal Charter, which is genuinely voluntary, will go through the normal public consultation process supervised by the Privy Council Office.

Newspaper and magazine readers will have their say and anyone who wants to suggest amendments will be able to do so.

2. Statutory underpinning: The Government Royal Charter can be changed easily by politicians, but it is almost impossible for the industry to change it.

It gives the Recognition Panel the power to interfere in the running of the Press regulator at any time, so it becomes the regulator of the regulator.

The Independent Royal Charter can only be changed by the Recognition Panel, the regulator and the industry representative trade bodies acting in unanimous agreement. It removes politicians entirely from the process.

3. Arbitration: Under the Government system, the industry would be obliged to set up an arbitration system, which is free for complainants to use. Regional and local newspapers, in particular, are alarmed at the prospect of having to fund a scheme which would inevitably open the floodgates to compensation claims and be exploited by ambulance-chasing lawyers.

This would go against Leveson's explicit recommendation to ensure the system imposes no additional burden for regional newspapers.

The industry solution is to set up a pilot arbitration scheme to ensure it works properly, with a small administration charge to deter claims-farming.

4. Apologies: The Government system would allow the regulator to force editors to apologise. It is an established legal principle that a forced apology has no value. It also runs counter to human rights law and principles of freedom of expression.

The industry's system allows the regulator to ensure that when editors get it wrong, they must correct it fully and prominently, but it does not give the regulator the power to force an apology.

5. Editors' Code: This goes to the heart of the self-regulatory system. The Government's Charter gives the new regulator control over the Editors' Code – the one aspect of the current Press regulation system which has received no criticism.

The Independent Royal Charter guarantees the independence of the Editors' Code from the regulator and from lobby groups looking to impose their agenda on the Code.

Any system of self-regulation needs the support of the industry being regulated. The Independent Royal Charter system has the backing of the national, regional and local newspaper and magazine industry.

It will deliver on the Leveson principles, binding the industry to a tough and enduring regulatory system and one which will be of real benefit to the public.

But it will also ensure that British people can still rely on a free Press, able to expose wrongdoing and hold the powerful to account – one of the cornerstones of our democracy for the past 300 years.

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