Question: when is statutory underpinning not statutory? Answer: when it is proposed by Oliver Letwin.
As the Government tie themselves in knots over the need to satisfy angry press victims without at the same time alienating the press barons, Oliver Letwin has come up with a solution.
In a meeting with Hacked Off on Thursday he explained that even a Royal Charter would require legislation to ensure that it could not be tampered with by future Governments.
While they are legislating to shore up the ‘non-statutory’ plan for an organisation to ‘verify’ the efficacy of a voluntary press body, Letwin will just bung in a couple of extra clauses.
One of the legislative after-thoughts would underpin a new tribunal arm for a press regulator so that it could offer an alternative to expensive high court action for the resolution of privacy and libel claims.
The other little bit of statutory fine-tuning would make it legally possible for courts to levy ‘exemplary fines’ on organisations that fail to join the new ‘self-regulator’.
So by a very convoluted route the press could well find themselves with most of the statutory arrangements that Leveson suggested.
This hybrid system would give some access to law to people without financial resources; it would also be able to punish those who failed to join the new regulator and it would leave the tabloid editors in charge of their own system of regulation (but without any of the special protections that Leveson had offered in the shape of a public interest defence).
However this move towards statutory underpinning has alarmed the press barons. They were warming to the idea of a Royal Charter. Now, Lord Hunt of the PCC is reported to feel ‘nervous’ about the new plan. Hacked Off, on the other hand, feel that it doesn’t go far enough.
The biggest worry is that we will end up with a just another shambles that will generate miles of red tape without providing the simple and robust system that Media Reform proposed.