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Cross-party consensus on Leveson tested with Royal Charter plan

12 February 2013

The Conservatives publish their plans for a Royal Charter to underpin regulation of the press today. Although the cross-party talks have been more successful than most imagined, with no rows or public posturing, today is the day when that consensus is tested.

There’s also another test on the way for the three parties, which is the return of the Defamation Bill to the Commons towards the end of February or start of March. This Bill was amended last week by peers – including Tories – to include low-cost arbitration for members of a press regulator, overseen by a ‘recognition commission’ and a statutory requirement for pre-notification. This amendment, an attempt at ‘Leveson by the back door’, will come down to the Commons for ping-pong (when MPs vote on whether to accept Lords amendments) shortly after the Bill’s third reading in the Upper Chamber on 25 February. There were 12 Tory peers who voted in favour of the amendment: will pro-statute Conservative MPs in the Commons such as George Eustice and Nadhim Zahawi support that amendment too?

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One of the interesting questions for the Conservatives today is whether their Royal Charter really does anything to avoid the statutory underpinning recommended by Leveson that David Cameron rejected? It’s a question Labour and pro-statute Conservatives have already raised, as there’s a chance that the Royal Charter underpinning press regulation will need statutory underpinning of its own. It would also need renewing by politicians once a decade, which hardly takes government out of the picture.

The Tories believe this is the solution that will maintain the consensus and enable the government to implement the bulk of Leveson’s recommendations. The Lib Dems and Labour have yet to say whether they will support it, but have expressed concerns about the plan, and the pro-statute Conservatives are similarly waiting to see the Charter. But this is the only deal on the table, which means disagreement will take the parties back to the drawing board once again.

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  • Teddy Bear

    The BBC are already bound by a Charter that they flout every day with impunity. How stupid the Conservatives are to think imposing another one on the rest of the media will do any better. The BBC already runs rings round Tories in favour of Labour. Clearly the Tories must be masochists as well as gutless.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    there should only be the law. If the press break it, they should be prosecuted. If anybody else breaks it, ditto. Most of what went wrong during the hacking scandal was actual law-breaking whether hacking phones or (far more common) paying off police officers or telco employees. We don’t need a new law for that. We need a quick and inexpensive recourse to litigation for those wronged in the press or broadcast media. Something along the lines of small claims court, which you can do entirely online. Celebrities and deep pocket people would have to take an extra portion of risk if they went the full court route, and if the judge thought that was not justified he would set the compensation and share the costs accordingly.

    The idea that there should be some standard of behaviour outside the law or a law for the print media alone is anathema. Wrong. Let the law apply to all of us or none.

    Oh, and a way to make sure the BBC stick to their remit would be nice too. Like recruit the Trust from real people not quangocrats.

    • Colonel Mustard

      Hear hear.

  • Radford_NG

    ” Wilks and Liberty !!! “

  • Mark Myword

    Leveson wanted a back stop body to oversee the the self regulation of the press. Such a body could be created by statute – as was recommended by Leveson, or it could be created by Royal Charter as now suggested. Which would best at keeping this new body away from the meddling fingers of politicians eager to score party political points? I would suggest that the Charter route, by history and experience – and as demonstrated by Chartered bodies like Universities and Learned Societies, provides the surest protection. Incidentally, Charters can have indefinite life, they do not have to be renewed every ten years.

    • Colonel Mustard

      It is as much about the meddling fingers of lobby and pressure groups who will want to use regulation as a means to censor things they don’t agree with. Leveson stupidly opened the door to that by acknowledging that the (non-democratic) role of these groups in exerting disproportionate pressure and influence should be integral to regulation through the complaints process rather than limiting it to the personal. That exceeds the test of actual harm and puts redress into the realm of “don’t like” – a very dangerous realm that is already creeping into our law.

      It means that a lobby or pressure group can use regulation to promote their causes by stifling opposition. An article they disagree with can be the subject of a complaint – “causing offence” – and the subsequent, mandatory regulation process will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression. These groups, mainly on the left, know this very well and are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of being able to control the narrative by applying an intimidatory methodology they have already refined to the cudgel of regulation.

      • Mark Myword

        Many politicians are the voices of these various pressure groups. A statute would be vulnerable to amendment at the whim of a future government or even a private members bill. Once established a Charter, granted by Royal Letters Patent, cannot be tinkered with at a whim. Furthermore, the courts have long recognised that Royal Charters have a special status which gives legal powers and legal protection to the older of a Charter. Of course, nothing could stop politicians if they were determined enough; but Kenneth Baker found when he tried to change the Charters of the Universities in the 1980’s, that it is not easy.

        • Colonel Mustard

          Yes, agreed. It is unfortunate how many MPs now front vocal but minority pressure groups masquerading as “popular campaigns” rather than their constituencies – like Claire Perry…

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