DCMSThe DCMS has published the Final Draft of the Royal Charter on Self-Regulation of the Press [pdf] along with an Explanatory Note [pdf]. There are a number of “technical amendments” dealing, in particular, with the role of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments and the application of the Charter to Scotland.

There is one substantive amendment to the “Scheme of Recognition” in Schedule 2 to the Charter.  This now includes a provision relating to “cyclical reviews” by the Board to the effect that where the Board

“determines the requirement to provide an arbitral process causes serious financial harm to subscribers who publish only on a local or regional basis,
the Recognition Panel may allow recognition to continue on the basis that such subscribers may, but need not, participate in the Regulator’s arbitral process”.

This means that if the local press fears of a “flood of arbitration claims” turns out to be justified (something which is, for reasons analysed on this blog, highly unlikely) they would be allowed to “opt out” of the arbitral arm of the self-regulator.

There have been two substantive amendments to the recognition criteria set out in Schedule 3 to the Charter.

First, the “recognition criterion” relating to the standards code has been replaced by an entirely new provision.  The provision in the 18 March 2013 Charter was as follows

“The standards code which is the responsibility of the Code Committee, must be approved by the Board or remitted to the Code Committee with reasons. The Code Committee will be appointed by the Board, in accordance with best practices for public appointments, and comprised of equal proportions of independent members, serving journalists (being national or regional journalists, or, where relevant to the membership of the self-regulatory body, local or on-line journalists) and serving editors.  There will be a biennial public consultation by the Code Committee, the results of which must be considered openly with the Board“.

This has been replaced by the following wording

“The standards code must ultimately be the responsibility of, and adopted by, the Board, advised by a Code Committee which may comprise both independent members of the Board and serving editors. Serving editors have an important part to play although not one that is decisive”.

This more closely reflects the wording of Leveson Recommendation 7 [pdf].  It removes the explicit role for serving journalists but makes the Code the responsibility of the Board, rather than of the Code Committee.

Secondly, Recognition Criterion 22e which requires an arbitration service to operate “under the principle that arbitration should be free for complainants to use” now has a new footnote which provides as follows:

“The principle that arbitration should be free does not preclude the charging of a small administration fee, provided that: (a) the fee is determined by the Regulator and approved by the Board of the Recognition Panel; and (b) the fee is used for the purpose of defraying the cost of the initial assessment of an application and not for meeting the costs of determining an application (including the costs of the arbitration)”.

This means that, contrary to Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations, a “small fee” can be charged for the use of the arbitration service which a recognised regulator should offer.

Hacked Off has commented on the revised version of the Charter in the following terms:

“Hacked Off, and the victims of press abuse for whom we speak, are pleased to see the publication today of the final text of the Royal Charter on the Press. This brings to an end eleven months of wrangling over Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations. We now look forward to better protection for the public from the kinds of abuses that made the Leveson Inquiry necessary.

We note that in the last-minute technical changes to the charter there have been further concessions to the press industry lobby, notably that it now permits an administrative charge for members of the public to use the new arbitration service. This is not what Lord Justice Leveson recommended and may well deter some members of the public from seeking redress when they have been wronged by news publishers.

We trust that those newspaper organisations which have been demanding this change – notably the local and regional press – will now accept that they have no reason to object to the system and will fully embrace the Charter process.

The way is now open to create a system of independent, effective press self-regulation that will benefit the public and poses no threat whatever to freedom of expression. Ordinary people will have far better redress when things go wrong, and the Charter will also benefit the industry, giving it a chance to rebuild trust and show its commitment to high standards.

Victims of press abuse now look to the industry to embrace that opportunity and put behind them a shocking period in which, in the words of Lord Justice Leveson, some sections of the press all too often wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people.”