The foxes have voted, and after careful deliberation concluded that they should be in charge of the chicken coop. No one should be surprised by the outcome of tonight’s Privy Council meeting: a group of politicians, masquerading as the voice of crown, has just approved a Royal Charter which gives them power to set the terms under which the press operates in Britain. The decision was taken in secrecy and the newspapers are suing. It’s a royal mess, but one with a very clear solution.
This new Royal Charter does not force newspapers to join. It’s a bizarre new club, looking for members. It must now be ignored. What it proposes is nothing less than the state licensing of the press via statutory regulation: something that (as a Commons committee once said) is a “hallmark of totalitarian regimes and risks undermining democracy.” So why go along with it?
Britain’s warring newspapers now have their own collective fate in their hands. Do they sign up to this idea, and play into the hands of the bizarre array of celebrities and priapic moguls behind Hacked Off? Or do they thank the politicians for their deliberations and carry on as normal?
It’s a no-brainer. Because, as my colleague Nick Cohen argues, press freedom is not ours to give away. No newspaper can, in good conscience, hand power to this lot — with their Privy Councils, their Tom Watsons and their hear-ye, hear-ye Royal Charters. And what they propose is, anyway, illegal. A new regime is coming, as the press has already agreed to set up the toughest regulatory system in the Western world with £1 million fines. They have agreed to do, to the millimetre, what Lord Leveson proposed. But on their own terms.
So the politicians have not ended press freedom. They have, this evening, asked a question of each British publication: do you want us to regulate you? There is only one respectable answer (pictured on a mug, above).