The government is launching a consultation on the press industry’s ‘rival’ Royal Charter – and we need your help to defeat it.
When this new, alternative Charter appeared at the end of last month, our opinion was unambiguous: we called it the “press barons’ charter”. The three main parties had agreed, after intense negotiation, an instrument which broadly worked; now the press trying to block that Charter from being signed into law with what amounted to a legislative filibuster: clearly inadequate, but with the technical right to be considered.
That consideration is now underway at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and it ends on Friday 24 May. before then, we urge anyone reading this page to write to the DCMS and tell them in no uncertain terms that the press barons’ charter is not good enough.
Your objections must be in your own name and should be sent to pressbofcharter@culture.
Below is our summary of why this charter must be opposed.
ONE: Editors, not journalists, will define the code of conduct.
Any new regulator will have the power to define what code of conduct its members must follow. In the cross-party version, this code is drawn up by a panel including working journalists and members of the public as well as editors. In the PressBof charter, only the editors are in control. Moreover, it removes an explicit requirement for “biennial public consultation’ which “must be considered openly”, meaning less public influence on the code that binds newspapers.
TWO: Investigations will be toothless and underfunded.
Under the cross-party charter any new regulator will need the power to conduct “simple and credible” investigations, and a “ring-fenced enforcement fund” to support it. The PressBof charter removes these requirements, allowing the regulator to set up empty shell investigations which never get to the bottom of anything. It also limits the power of the recognizer to independently review the regulator if there have been serious breaches of the code.
THREE: Corrections and complaints will be sidelined and delayed.
The PressBof charter makes anyone seeking complaints jump through unfair hoops before getting a result.
- First, it limits the regulator’s power to make newspapers give their corrections and apologies the prominence they deserve – ‘front page apologies for front page libels’.
- Second, it eliminates specific language allowing “corrections and apologies” and replaces that with a generic “remedy.”
- Third, it decouples these powers from requirements in the cross-party charter that newspapers adopt “adequate and speedy” complaints handling systems and that complaints be resolved within “an appropriate time”.
- Finally, it raises the bar for third party complaints from an “alleged breach of the code” to a “significant” one, and from only a “public interest” to a “substantial” one.
In short, the Leveson Report criticised newspapers for resisting legitimate complaints “almost as a matter of course” – but the PressBof charter gives them license to do just that.
FOUR: No more arbitrator?
A key plank of the Leveson report was that any new press regulator should have an arbitration process capable of resolving disputes between the press and the public in a timely and cheap fashion. PressBof’s charter just says that the regulator “may provide an arbitral process”, and “may” operate a pilot scheme. That may be intended to mollify the fears of regional newspapers that an arbitrator will be too expensive – but it also gives the regulator carte blanche to squirm out of one of Leveson’s main recommendations.
Even if they do set up an arbitrator, PressBof’s Charter replaces “free for complinants” with “inexpensive” and removes the requirement to be “inexpensive for all parties”. This places even more barriers in the way of justice for anyone wronged by the press.
FIVE: Political influence at every level.
The PressBof charter allows members of the House of Lords to serve on both the appointments committee of the recognizer and the main board of any new regulator. It also removes a ban on serving members of either house working for the recognizer, and trashes the requirement that board members must be able to act “fairly and impartially”. Far from preventing political influence over the press, it allows the regulator to be influenced by politicians who the press support.
SIX: Newspaper owners will effectively control the regulator.
The PressBof charter guarantees a whip-hand for PressBof itself in the formation and funding of the recognizer and sweeps away a variety of pernickety language preventing industry interference:
- In the cross-party charter the regulator board had to “comprise a majority of people whoa re independent of the press.” Now it must merely “include” them.
- The cross-party charter bars from both the recognition board and its appointments committee a member who “has been” an editor or “otherwise involved” in publication. These have been removed.
- The new charter establishes a two-tier standard for influence: the regulator must act without “direction” from industry but without “influence” from government (in the cross-party charter, “influence” served for both).
While the press have reduced their power of veto in some arenas, the PressBof charter still mandates a regulator in thrall to the press itself. And it guarantees the press will have a veto over any amendments or changes to the Charter itself.
SEVEN: Fair? Effective? Independent? These words have been deliberately removed.
Right at the beginning of Schedule 2, the Cross-Party charter says:
“In making its decision on whether the Regulator meets those criteria [the recognizer] shall consider the concepts of effectiveness, fairness, and objectivity of standards, independence and transparency of enforcement and compliance, credible powers and remedies, reliable funding, and effective accountability…”
PressBof’s charter simply removes this, making it look like a catalogue of everything they don’t want a new regulator to be.
EIGHT: It insulates the press in perpetuity from being held to account.
The much-vaunted ‘triple lock’ system has been portrayed by the press as meaning freedom from ‘political control’. Under this system no change could be made to the Royal Charter without the unanimous agreement of the recognizer, the regulator, and all four press industry bodies. The Sun claimed this would prevent “Ministry of Truth-style political interference” and the Daily Mail said it was “crucial if Press freedom is to be protected.”
But what it actually means is that the changes we are contemplating could never happen again. It would be very difficult for any future government to reform press regulation in such a way that might damage the ability of proprietors to ride roughshod over the public sphere. It puts the newspaper industry exactly where it wants to be – in total charge of its own ethical behaviour, and insulated in perpetuity from being held to account by a democratically elected government. In short, they want to seal themselves off to the maximum possible extent from another Leveson Inquiry, no matter how badly they behave. It must, for that reason, be opposed.