Newspaper bosses squeal in sham anguish, but they knew better than anyone that their petition for a Royal Charter was never likely to be more than a spoiling manoeuvre, and that in the end it would have to be binned.
On every level it was an inadequate document, so that if it had been a school exam paper, even the most sympathetic teacher would have had to fail it.
Basic supporting data, such as financial information and the CVs of those tabling it, were never submitted. And the applicant itself, the Press Standards Board of Finance (PressBoF), did not begin to meet the criteria that are spelled out clearly on the Privy Council website.
Constitutionally it was laughable. Imagine that Parliament passed a Bill on pub licensing hours, but just before the Bill received Royal Assent a bunch of big landlords went to the Queen and said: ‘We’ve written a Bill of our own. We want you to sign ours instead and make it law.‘ Democracy isn’t like that.
A draft charter written by an isolated vested interest that has been condemned by a judge-led public inquiry could not conceivably trump a charter closely based on that inquiry’s recommendations and then formally endorsed by Parliament. If that was allowed to happen it would be an affront to democracy and could well provoke this country’s worst constitutional crisis in a century.
If PressBoF’s document was so hopeless, why was it allowed to delay Parliament’s charter for so long?
Submitted shortly before the Privy Council was due to approve Parliament’s charter, it has been backed by relentless legal pressure. The implicit threat to ministers has been simple: if we, PressBoF, can find the slightest excuse to argue that you have failed to treat our petition fairly, we will drag you through the courts for months.
Officials and politicians were so intimidated (unnecessarily in the view of our legal advisers), that they delayed Parliament’s Charter for five months. First they held a public consultation on the PressBoF petition, and then they set up a Privy Council Committee to evaluate it.
We can judge how empty this second exercise must have been by the question the Committee was asked to consider. It was something like this: is this PressBoF draft charter the best way of delivering the Government’s policy? Since Parliament’s Royal Charter is itself the formal expression of the Government’s policy, this is a no-brainer.
Only one process in all this has democratic legitimacy or moral credibility. Parliament’s Royal Charter:
- implements the recommendations of a duly constituted public inquiry led by an impartial senior judge at which the views and record of the press were examined at exhaustive length;
- was formally approved by all parties in the House of Commons, following agreement between the leaders of both government parties and the leader of the opposition;
- enjoys the support of all of the leading victims of press abuses to gave evidence to the public inquiry about their experiences;
- has the overwhelming support of the public, as demonstrated in opinion poll after opinion poll.
The PressBoF charter petition, in contrast, only has the support of newspaper managements who were condemned in the report of the public inquiry for ‘wreaking havoc in the lives of innocent people‘ and for operating a so-called self-regulator that put their own interests before those of the public.
If any other powerful vested interest pulled off a stunt like this, the press would be up in arms about denying the will of the people and wasting the time of ministers and officials. But when it’s them doing the mischief, they don’t complain.
Brian Cathcart is the Executive Director of Hacked Off