A Dacre’s Dozen: 12 fatal flaws in the press barons’ charter – Evan Harris

12 05 2013

imagesIn an attempt to undermine the Royal Charter on press regulation that has been agreed by all parties in Parliament, Associated Newspapers News International and Telegraph Group have published their own rival charter, the “PressBoF” Royal Charter.

On behalf of victims, Hacked Off is pleased that all political parties are sticking to the promises they made to the victims of press abuse and to the public that there will be no renegotiation of the Leveson-based cross-party Royal Charter.

To fully capture the deceit and conceit behind this scheme you need to know that “PressBoF” – the Press Standards Board of Finance is the shadowy body of top press executives that funds and dominates the failed Press Complaints Commission. It is chaired by the Tory peer, Telegraph boss and former PCC director Guy Black, whose 2012 plan for future press self-regulation was comprehensively rejected by Lord Justice Leveson. Look at the list of who is on it and play “spot the independent”.

Here I identify and explain the 12 main flaws in this charter, when it is compared with the Leveson Royal Charter.  A full comparison can be found in this document: Comparison of Cross-Party and PressBof Draft Royal Charter [pdf].

Those top 12 flaws in full:

1. Arbitration becomes optional
· In the PressBoF Charter there is no requirement to provide an arbitration scheme, one of the central recommendations of the Leveson regulatory recommendations (Schedule 3, para 22)

2. PressBoF now runs the show
The Press Board of Finance (dominated by Associated/News International/Telegraph Group) is written into the Charter and has a great deal of power
· The Charter is granted to PressBof: (Petition and Preamble and Article 1)
· Members of PressBof make up the initial Recognition Panel (Article1.2)
· PressBof/Industry Funding Body (and trade bodies) have a veto on amendments to Charter (Article 9.2)
· PressBof/Industry Funding Body (and trade bodies) have a veto on dissolving the Charter (Article 10.2)
· PressBof funds the Recognition Panel on from year to year, rather than a long-term basis: (Article 11)

3. No power to direct equal place and prominence for corrections
The regulator can’t make a paper print an apology on the page where the original story appeared, but like the current PCC will be in the position of negotiating what sort of remedial action is suitable and have far less power to say what, how or where a correction or apology should be published (Schedule 3, paras15 & 16)

4. Editors remain in almost total control of the Code of Practice
This is to the exclusion of journalists, and significantly reducing the role of the public and independent appointees or independently-appointed people (Schedule 3, para 7)

5. There is no longer a guarantee that investigations will be funded or effective
They are not required to be ‘simple and credible’ (as in 18th March Charter). There is no requirement for a ring-fenced investigations fund. The recognition panel cannot use its judgment to assess the effectiveness of investigations. (Schedule 3, paras 18 & deletion of 19A)

6. The appointments process of the Recognition Panel is far less independent of the industry
· The Commissioner for Public Appointments no longer has control of process or appointment (deletions in Schedule 1, para 2.1 and para 4.2).
· The Chair appoints the other members (this was to be done directly by the Commissioner for Public Appointments) (Schedule 1, para 2.2).
· One member of the (4 person) appointments committee has to be agreed with PressBof/Industry. (Schedule 1, para 2.3).
· Members of the recognition panel serve only 2 years not 5 years – considerably increasing turnover and the ability to influence appointments (Schedule 1, para 5.2)

7. Politicians are let back in – everywhere
· Any and all politicians (jncluding serving MPs) can play a role on the staff of the Recognition Panel including its director, as the total bar has been removed (see Article 7.3).
· The bar on Party political peers and MEPs – from the Appointments Committee and the Board of the Recognition Panel – has been removed (see Schedule1, paras 2.4 & 3.3)
· The bar on Party political peers, MEPs, and elected members of the devolved parliaments/assemblies – from the Board of the Regulator – has been removed (see Schedule 3, para 5)

8. Curtailment of judgement of the Recognition Panel
· The Recognition Panel cannot use its judgment to see whether the regulator is independent and effective, it is bound strictly to the tick-box approach recognition criteria (Schedule 2, para1)

9. Whistle-blowing hotline is not a recognition requirement
· Although the final draft now purports to include a “requirement” (Schedule 3 Para 8A) to have a whistle-blowing hotline, and that Schedule 2 para 1 says that the recognition criteria must be met, this requirement is not in fact a requirement for recognition/approval by virtue of the explicit rejection of this, and other Leveson recommendations, as recognition criteria in Schedule 2, para 4 of the PressBof version
· It also removes the obligation for the regulator to provide guidance on the public interest, or general advice to the public about the Code and privacy issues (Deletion of Schedule 3, paras 8A-8C)

10. Extra barriers for bringing complaints
· It will be very difficult indeed for representative groups to complain (Schedule 3, para 11(b)). A representative group complaint has to be a ‘significant’ code breach, there has to be ‘substantial’ public interest, and it has to qualify for ‘formal’ consideration.
· This is a higher hurdle even than PCC
· It is not needed because bars on “opinion-based”, “lobbying” or “unjustified” complaints are already excluded in both Charters (Schedule 3 para 11)

11. Lack of Independence of the Chair of the “independent self-regulator”
The independence of the Chair of the “independent self-regulator” has been significantly undermined (to such an extent that he or she could it seems even be a serving editor, a serving MP or any politician) and certainly someone who cannot in the view of the appointments panel act fairly and impartially.
This is due to the
· deletion of Schedule 3, para 5 (f) entirely – a requirement that Chair and board members are able to act fairly and impartially,
· deletion of Schedule 3 para 5 (d) and (e) from the criteria in para 2,
· combination of that with the caveat at the end of para 1 that industry involvement in making appointments to the board in line with para 5 is not a breach of para 1.
· The lack of clarity on whether para 4 applies to the appointment of the Chair
· And the only “check” on such an obvious breach of the Leveson requirements would be the Recognition Panel. However if the self-regulator is put to the Recognition Panel as soon as it is created, the Panel would be … PressBoF itself

12. Power to exclude publishers by lack of differential subscription rules
· The self-regulator will be able to exclude some publishers by virtue of not being required to provide differential membership terms based on different characteristics of the publishers (deletion of words in Schedule 3, para 23)

As legally it must be, the PressBoF draft charter is currently being considered formally by the Culture, Media and Sport department. Hacked Off is confident that it will be rejected. It is obvious that it would deliver press self-regulation riven with the failings of the discredited Press Complaints Commission.

We have heard that an ‘industry veto’ on appointments to the self-regulator has been ‘conceded’. That planned veto does not even appear in the PressBoF charter and it is does not therefore even make our Top 12 above. It turns out that they merely planned a veto in the standing orders behind the Charter but had not made it public. The concession is to convert a qualified majority voting requirement for nominations to go forward, into a requirement for consensus. So it is not actually a concession at all!

Evan Harris is associate director at Hacked Off. He tweets at @DrEvanHarris.


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