The Government’s response to the Leveson report manages to give the press everything it asked for, yet at the same time take it all away, by leaving the legal underpinning of self regulation in the hands of the Privy Council.
In future it would be possible for ministers to interfere with the press without bothering with an act of Parliament. That fact alone could well turn out to be the stroke of genius which unites the media reform movement and the news media — in opposing it.
As media lawyers Inforrm blog explains: “Under this Royal Charter politicians would be able to interfere with the regulation system, either to undermine press freedom or to help their friends in the press escape accountability. A chartered organisation is one that is overseen by ministers, and the efforts made by ministers to alter that in this case are simply insufficient.”
Not content with devising this fiendishly complicated means of avoiding a statute which would bring the new system into being (as Leveson recommended) the Charter also manages to avoid the other point on which Leveson was absolutely adamant: the independence of the appointment system and of the chair of the Board from any interference by either the press or political parties.
The Royal Charter would give the industry the right to veto board members and would do nothing to prevent the continuation of the succession of Conservative Peers who have chaired the PCC. Indeed the proposal is very clearly establishing a new body to represent the press rather than a new body to represent the public interest. There is no suggestion here that the new body would be enjoined to establish a definition of “public interest” a factor that Media Reform considers absolutely necessary as a safeguard for future investigative journalism.
Even the minimal suggestion that the board should be able to direct the “publication of corrections and apologies” has been deleted and replaced by a vague injunction to direct, “remedial action for breach of standards” — but only when attempts at conciliation have proved unworkable.
And finally the proposal that the public should have access to a free service for complaints has disappeared to be replaced by an “inexpensive” system for complainants. If inexpensive is to the tribunal system what “affordable” is to housing, we can expect fees that are payable only by those with substantial means at their disposal.
It seems likely that both the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats will oppose the Charter out of hand. Harriet Harman said in response to it: “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.”
A senior Lib Dem source told the Spectator today: “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.”
In the background of the debate on the Charter, lies last Tuesday’s amendment to the Defamation Bill, tabled by Lord Puttnam, former Conservative Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay, former Speaker Baroness Boothroyd and former Attorney-General Baroness Scotland. This amendment was tabled as a back door ambush to try and force the Government’s hand.
It would provide three key measures:
- A “Defamation Recognition Commission” would provide an “arbitration service” for defamation and related civil claims (a “Specialist Arbitration Service”).
- Courts would be able to take into account whether or not the arbitration service has been used when awarding costs or damages and exemplary damages .
- The “Specialist Arbitration Service” would be free for complainants to use.
If this amendment became law it would neatly and effectively provide the legal underpinning upon which Lord Leveson’s recommendations depended.
However some of the organisations that had been working on the Defamation Bill over several years, are very anxious that the ambush could result in the loss of the Defamation Bill altogether. Tracey Brown, Managing Director of Sense About Science said:
“We and thousands of others have campaigned for 3 years to stop the libel laws’ bullying and chilling effects on discussions about health, scientific research, consumer safety, history and human rights. We’ve come so close but we can’t risk waiting another generation to get this right if the government drops the Bill.”
Index on Censorship and English Pen have also spoken out against the amendment.
Media Reform welcomes the amendment, because it provides a very much simpler and more usable means of implementing Leveson than the cumbersome structure that the Government envisages, however loss of the Defamation Bill would be a serious set-back for press freedom.
We therefore urge MPs to throw out the Royal Charter and to vote instead for both the Defamation Bill and the amendment. Coupled together these measures provide both the protection that investigative journalism requires and the protection that the public deserves.