Does the Royal Charter, published by the Conservative party this afternoon, take politicians any further away from meddling with press regulation? The charter is the Tory answer to the statutory underpinning recommended by Lord Leveson, and the party is keen to stress that it ‘does not require statute and enables the principles of Leveson to be fulfilled without legislation’. But is this plan any better?
Well, the charter, which you can read here, can only be unpicked or changed if the leaders of all three parties confirm they agree with this and if the change gets the support of at least two thirds of MPs.
It also needs the support of all those involved in the cross-party talks. So what do they think? Labour are the least impressed, unsurprisingly, with Harriet Harman penning a lengthy letter to Oliver Letwin in response:
‘We have substantive concerns that the Royal Charter as drafted fails to comply with the recommendations that the Leveson Report makes. At the heart of Leveson’s proposals was that a new system should be independent of politicians and independent of the press.
‘The draft Royal Charter fails this test in two particular respects.’
Harman argues that there is nothing to stop ministers on the Privy Council meddling with the Charter, and that the press will be represented on the ‘recognition panel’, which means Leveson’s demand for the new system to be independent of the press has been ignored.
When I spoke to a senior Lib Dem source about this, he told me:
‘We welcome it as a good start to the debate, but we have still got concerns about what happens in the future. A Royal Charter could be almost easier to amend than statute. There are still questions about how that could work.’
Index on Censorship’s Kirsty Hughes makes a similar point, saying ‘the fact that the Royal Charter is given legitimacy over the Privy Council and Parliament does mean that this cannot be described as strong self-regulation, the status which best guarantees press freedom’.
There’s a chance that in its quest to avoid the word ‘statute’ at all costs, the Conservative party might have created something that operates in a similar way but with easier access for politicians. It’s possible, for instance, that another press scandal in a decade’s time under Royal Charter could lead politicians to change the charter in haste under public pressure.
All those involved agree that cross-party talks will continue, and those involved seem keen to keep them going, although at some point the group will have to reach a decision.