The draft Royal Charter supported by the victims of press intrusion and approved by parliament provides the complaints system which is long overdue and poses no threat to the freedom of the press. It is ironic that when we’re talking about news reporting, hostile reporting of the Draft Royal Charter has fostered a number of myths. I want to debunk some of those today.
First it is constantly referred to as press regulation. It is not regulation, it is redress for those who complain about breaches by the press of their own code. So can we please be accurate and refer to it as a press complaints system and not press regulation.
Second it is attacked for being born out of a stitch-up in discussions from which the press were excluded. Not true. There were extensive discussions with the press. Government ministers met the press many times – and many more times than they met the victims of press intrusion. Looking back at my diary it’s clear that I had many meetings with the victims of press intrusion and Hacked Off. And I make no apology for that. But I had even more meetings with newspapers – with editors and proprietors.
And during those discussions we sought to work through how we could make the Leveson proposals work in practice – neither gold-plating them nor watering them down
The third myth is that press concerns about Leveson’s report were ignored. Not true. Leveson proposed the recognition system be set up in statute. The press didn’t want that, so the government proposed a Royal Charter instead and – despite our misgivings – we accepted that. And there were many other changes that the press called for and we made – such as in the arbitration system and the responsibility for the code.
The fourth myth is that it involves political interference in the press. Far from it. There’s an absolute aversion to that from all sides of the House of Commons. No parliamentarian has called for that. So we went to great lengths to keep Ministers and Parliament out of the process.
Under the terms of the draft Royal Charter, politicians are banned from serving on the Recognition Panel or serving on the board of the independent self-regulator.
Once the Charter has been sealed by the Privy Council, to prevent ministers meddling with it, it cannot be changed except by a two thirds majority of both Houses of Parliament.
The fifth myth is that it’s designed for national papers and threatens local papers. In fact, Leveson specifically provides that, if they want, local papers can set up their own regulator – or have different arrangements within the national regulator.
So the draft Royal Charter framework protects journalistic standards, protects the public and protects the freedom of the press.
This is a very controversial issue over which there have been heated and divisive arguments for decades.
So it is highly significant that all the party leaders agreed on the draft Royal Charter and it was then endorsed by Parliament on 18 March 2013.
But we are not at the end of the road of what is a complex and byzantine process of a Royal Charter. The situation has been complicated by the fact that while the government were ironing out the last technicalities of the Charter approved by Parliament a section of the newspaper industry (PressBoF) submitted to the Privy Council their own proposals for a Royal Charter.
The Privy Council can only consider one Charter on any one issue at the same time. And as the PressBoF draft Royal Charter was the first one to be submitted, the Privy Council must follow due process and must have the space to do that.
The Privy Council has now consulted on the PressBoF Royal Charter. We await their decision, and hope the Government will have the opportunity to submit the parliamentary Royal Charter to the Privy Council in due course.
We don’t yet know if and when the Privy Council will turn its attention to the draft Royal Charter approved by Parliament. But we hope it will be soon, because Parliament resolved in March for it to go to the Privy Council in May, which of course hasn’t happened.
But if and when it is approved, this will then be the process.
The Royal Charter will be sealed by the Privy Council.
The Commissioner for Public Appointments will appoint an Appointments Committee. That Appointments Committee will appoint the members of the Recognition Panel.
It will then be up to the press to propose an independent self-regulatory body, or bodies, which match up to the Recognition Criteria in the Royal Charter.
If within 12 months of the Royal Charter being sealed, not all significant news publishers are part of the system, the Recognition Panel will have to report that to Parliament and the public.
If within 15 months of the Royal Charter being sealed, there is no regulator, the Recognition Panel will have to report that to Parliament and the public.
This is an edited extract of the annual Charles Wheeler Lecture, delivered at the University of Westminster on 13 June 2013. Another extract, dealing with issues of plurality will be posted tomorrow