There is a strange kind of hypocrisy in the way some Fleet Street representatives use and abuse the notion of Parliamentary approval. As it happens, the claim that the cross-party Royal Charter – which will now be delayed beyond May 15 – has not been approved by Parliament is misleading at best.
On the one hand, Roy Greenslade was “taken to task” on May 2 (by whom?) for referring to the cross-party Charter as “Parliament’s charter”. He noted that “publishers argue that it has not been approved by parliament.” When Peter Wright went on World At One to discuss the Newspaper Association’s rival proposal, he pointed out the same thing.
On the other hand, the same publishers have spent months arguing that any new press regulator should not be subject to Parliament at all. That is the functional meaning of arguing against a ‘press law’. Now they are reporting on a poll by the Free Speech Network which claims, in the words of the Daily Mail, that “a clear majority of the public wants politicians kept out of a new system of Press regulation” (more on that another day).
As Dominic Ponsford, editor of the Press Gazette, pointed out in Greenslade’s comments, it makes no sense to say the Charter doesn’t have Parliamentary approval when both its key legislative backstops have been passed into law.
The House of Commons passed the Crime and Courts Act with all its provisions for exemplary damages and cost benefits intact – as well as the exclusions for small scale blogs we have been making so much noise about. Given that these provisions are explicitly linked to the notion of an ‘approved regulator’ (as defined by the Charter), their approval is a clear endorsement of the scheme.
Meanwhile, both houses agreed to an Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill which included an amendment preventing ministers from amending the Royal Charter without a two-thirds majority of both houses.
And finally there was the broad backing for a resolution declaring that the House of Commons “welcomed” the Charter (as quoted in this perhaps optimistically headlined blog from the London School of Economics).
Let’s not forget how vigorously the Lords asserted their demand for a fully lawyered-up and Leveson-compliant regulator.
So you can argue that the press shouldn’t be beholden to Parliament, or that Parliament shouldn’t involve itself in regulation, or even that Parliament’s will is not an accurate democratic reflection of the people of Great Britain. It would be farcical, however, to argue that they have not approved the cross-party Royal Charter.
And who wanted a Royal Charter in the first place, this semi-statutory instrument that appears not to ‘cross the Rubicon’ but is actually more vulnerable to political interference than a Parliamentary law? Not us!