This morning’s FT Editorial (£) repeats a myth we hear all the time: that the cross-party royal charter was “assembled over pizza in the early hours of the morning”. A deal was thrown together – so the story goes – late at night in Ed Miliband’s office with Hacked Off in the room and the press totally excluded.
Variants frequently appear in statements from editors and proprietors which refer to the cross-party Royal Charter on press self-regulation that was approved by Parliament last March.
They recycle this legend because, though the Charter is a modest and cautious document, they would prefer something much weaker and so they want undermine any idea that, when every single party in Parliament supports a measure, that might be an expression of the democratic will of the country.
No element of the statement is true, however, and those repeating it are revealing their capacity for misrepresentation and their unwillingness to check facts.
Here are the facts. The Royal Charter that was approved on 18 March 2013 was not thrown together late at night. It is based on the recommendations and findings of the Leveson Report, which has been around since November 2012.
Drafts of those findings, expressed in Charter form, had been in circulation since early January, and between January and mid-March representatives of the press were involved, by their own account, in ‘intensive talks’ about Charter drafting.
After those months of public and political debate the terms of the Charter were agreed by all three main parties on the afternoon of Sunday 17 March 2103, following a series of exchanges between the party leaders and ministers over the previous couple of days.
Here is the account of those days given in evidence to the Commons media select committee by Oliver Letwin, the minister who was leading for the Conservatives in the talks. He starts on the previous Thursday, 14 March 2013:
‘. . . we arrived at a position where the other parties were initially not willing to sign on to the version of the Charter we put forward. That is why the Prime Minster broke off the discussions and insisted that the other parties come forward with their version of the Charter if they wanted to have something that we could discuss. They did. It was not very different from ours. We then put forward a revision that was, roughly speaking, midway between our version of our Charter and their version of our Charter. It is indeed that very version that was put forward at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon on the Sunday – not in the early hours – and nothing whatsoever to do with Hacked Off, that you see before you here. There were no material changes in the Charter after that day.’
That’s pretty clear. And where was Hacked Off?
You may recall that on many occasions in the past David Cameron had stressed the importance of the views of victims of press abuses. Here is an example, from his testimony at the Leveson Inquiry on 14 June 2012:
‘. . . and that’s the test of all this. It’s not: do the politicians or the press feel happy with what we get? It’s: are we really protecting people who have been caught up and absolutely thrown to the wolves by this process. That’s what the test is . . .’
The other party leaders shared that view, and in keeping with their promises they wanted the victims’ view of the Charter they had agreed before they put it to Parliament. Since Hacked Off represents many victims, including the most prominent ones, we were invited to a meeting with Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband in the Labour leader’s office late on the Sunday. Oliver Letwin joined later.
No pizza was served, or at least we saw none. We gave the view that our supporters, and notably the victims, would welcome the agreed cross-party Charter, though we expressed regret on their behalf that it contained a number of concessions to the press that made it less than fully faithful to the Leveson recommendations.
At that stage there were still elements of the supporting legislation to be agreed, and after some discussion those present decided to defer them. Beyond that, we from Hacked Off sought reassurance on some practicalities, one of which, relating to timing, has since assumed a sorry significance.
We asked when the Charter would be sealed by the Privy Council – the rubber-stamping process needed to give it effect. We were told May. The next day, the House of Commons was also told it would be May. It still hasn’t happened.
So Parliament’s Royal Charter was not thrown together; the press was not excluded from the process of creating it; pizzas were not served and Hacked Off was invited in afterwards to honour the Prime Minister’s promise to hear the views of victims.
The Royal Charter, for its part, commands the support of Parliament, of the public and of the victims of the abuses that made the Leveson Inquiry necessary. The small group of powerful press proprietors who are resisting it, whose papers stand condemned for ‘wreaking havoc in the lives of innocent people’, are simply demanding the right to go on wreaking havoc.
Brian Cathcart is Executive Director, Hacked Off