Seven international media organisations wrote to the Queen yesterday to say that she should block the Royal Charter on the press that has been endorsed by all parties in Parliament and is due to be ‘granted‘ at a Privy Council session next Wednesday. The letter is ill-informed and misguided. Below is the text with our commentary in red italics.
For more than three centuries since Britain abolished the last set of statutory controls on the press in 1695, the United Kingdom has been a consistent champion of the most crucial freedom of all – freedom of expression – and a beacon of liberty across the world.
Indeed, Britain has a proud tradition of freedom of expression. As it happens, the writers are mistaken in suggesting that 1695 saw the end of statutory restrictions on the press. To take two of many examples, a series of Defamation Acts, the most recent passed this year, prevents newspapers (among others) from publishing libels, while as recently as 1941 a British national newspaper (the Daily Worker) was banned under the Emergency Powers (Defence) Acts of 1939 and 1940. This is not to suggest for one moment that governments should act to restrict freedom of expression; it merely demonstrates that the writers of this letter are citing British history without knowing or understanding it.
Freedom of expression was central to the European Convention of Human Rights which Britain helped draft. It is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which the UK is a signatory. It is a core belief in the Commonwealth Charter which Britain inspired.
All true, and these vitally important international agreements deserve everyone’s support. Alas, a number of UK national newspapers, notably the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Murdoch titles, are opposed to the European Convention and want the UK to resile from it. Perhaps the authors of this letter will now take that up with them.
Free speech and freedom of expression have throughout the 20th and 21st centuries therefore been at the core of Britain’s international commitments, of its leadership of the free world, and of its international reputation as a liberal democracy.
Absolutely. See above.
Yet all that is now in danger.
No it isn’t. See below for the detail. On the legal principle: if it really was a danger to free speech, the Charter could not survive a challenge in the British courts under the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporated the European Convention into UK law. (Although if the Daily Mail succeeds in having the HRA repealed, that won’t be an option.)
No one should be in any doubt that the proposed Royal Charter which politicians are forcing Your Majesty to sign is, despite the camouflage, in reality a set of repressive statutory controls being imposed on the press against its will.
These are not statutory controls on the press, camouflaged or otherwise. The authors of this letter don’t identify any part of the document that is a control on the press, let alone a statutory one, because no such part exists. If they had read the Royal Charter (a constitutional device adopted to appease the press) they would know that it establishes a totally independent body whose only job is to conduct periodic inspections of a (totally independent) press self-regulator to ensure it meets basic, specified regulatory standards.The aim is to ensure it is capable of giving members of the public fair treatment rather than being a puppet of press proprietors like all of its predecessors (see the Leveson Report, part IV).
That should not be the function of a Royal Charter.
This is very odd. If a Royal Charter is not an appropriate device to set up such a body, why did PressBoF (aka the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Murdoch papers) apply for a Royal Charter for just that purpose only this year? (Their application was rejected.)
Some will argue that it is just intended to establish a body to oversee an independent regulator.
They will argue that because it is true.
But by laying down rules about how that regulator must work and how the ethical Codes that bind the press should be written this toxic Charter brings Parliament for the first time ever to the heart of the newsroom.
Again this is simply wrong. After decades of press abuses, the British public is not prepared to settle for another sham self-regulator like the Press Complaints Commission. The ‘rules’ laid down in the Royal Charter have no bearing on what newspapers may or may not publish, indeed the Royal Charter states (Schedule 3, para 17) that the self-regulator ‘should not have the power to prevent publication of any material, by anyone, at any time’. The ‘rules’ relate exclusively to the process of regulation and are there to ensure the press does not once again rig the self-regulator so it serves their interests and not the public’s. The ‘rules’ were not set by Parliament but were recommended by a judge after a properly constituted public inquiry prompted by outrages committed by newspaper employees. As for bringing Parliament into the newsroom, even a cursory reading of the Royal Charter will show that it goes to great lengths to ensure politicians have no role at all (see below). It is the proposals put forward by PressBoF that would allow working party politicians to meddle in the process.
It breaches the fundamental principle that politicians must never get involved in editorial content regulation.
To be clear: under the Royal Charter no politician may be involved even in the appointment of members of the independent ‘Recognition Panel’ set up by the Charter and no politician may sit on it or work for it. No minister may have any influence over it. And the Panel itself has no power to interfere in newspaper content. It should not normally have any dealings at all with newspapers but only with their self-regulator. The Charter also stipulates that no politician may influence or be a member of a self-regulator, which in turn cannot prevent a newspaper publishing anything (see Charter schedule 3, para 17 again). These protections for the freedom of the press are unprecedented in Britain.
And it lays the foundation for fully fledged statutory controls.
This unsupported slippery-slope assertion shows ignorance of the UK constitution and UK politics. First, the Royal Charter establishes the Recognition Panel and nothing else. Second, it does not affect in any way the ability of Parliament to legislate about whatever it likes. As a matter of plain fact there is no appetite whatever in any British political party for ‘statutory controls’ of the press, as Lord Justice Leveson pointed out in his report. If Parliament, one day in the distant future, decided to restrict freedom of expression, the Charter could make no difference to that and the only thing British people could do in response would be to vote that Parliament out and get the restriction repealed.
That will have a chilling impact on journalism throughout the United Kingdom – from the biggest national newspapers to the smallest local and regional papers and magazines in the four nations of your country – weakening democracy as a result.
Ah, democracy. The writers of the letter don’t seem to see the preposterousness of the position they have adopted. They are demanding that an unelected, hereditary monarch should block a measure that has received the endorsement of every single party in the democratically-elected House of Commons. They talk of 300 years of press freedom but the struggle to ensure Britain was not ruled by the divine right of kings goes back rather farther than that and was won at far greater cost: do these people really want to put that into reverse? As for a ‘chilling effect’ on journalism, if the writers understood the Charter system they would know it protects investigative journalism as never before from the chilling powers of wealthy individuals and big institutions. In the past such people have been able to get valid news stories spiked merely with the threat of expensive legal actions. Under the system of self-regulation underpinned by the Charter, that can’t happen.
But far more important to us is the impact of your actions across the globe. The world still follows Britain in so many areas. If the UK moves to control the press through the force of law then it will have a terrifying knock-on effect throughout the Commonwealth and much of the developing world where Britain has a key leadership role. The fact that this is being done by Royal Charter – an instrument traditionally used to grant rights, not to curtail them – will make that infinitely worse because of the respect in which You personally, and the Crown institutionally, are held throughout the world.
Since the UK is not ‘moving to control the press through force of law’ (see above) they can stop worrying. As for the use of Royal Charter, again, if it was such a disgraceful idea why did PressBoF apply for one? And remember, it is the writers of this letter who want an unelected head of state to overturn a decision made by an elected parliament. Isn’t that what dictators do?
The actions of Britain’s Parliament will be used as an excuse by those who want to muzzle the press in their own country and stifle the free flow of information – and there are many governments who would love to do so. And it is your name, Your Majesty, that will regrettably be taken in vain. “If it is good enough for the Queen, it is good enough for us.” Already we have seen the chill winds of what is happening in the UK in South Africa, Botswana and Sri Lanka. Many more will follow.
If authoritarian regimes want to misrepresent to their peoples what is happening in the UK, it is up to international media organisations such as the ones behind this letter to try to prevent and correct that. By encouraging the idea that the UK is doing something that it is not, they are actually helping the dictators.
This issue is of huge importance for freedom of expression in the UK. It is important for Britain’s standing in the world. But above all it is important for the impact on countries not nearly so lucky as the many of us in Europe who until now have enjoyed fundamental freedoms. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting next month in Sri Lanka, the British Government – with The Prince of Wales as your representative – should be campaigning for the protection and expansion of free expression throughout the Commonwealth, not least in countries like Rwanda, Singapore and Sri Lanka itself, which persistently lag at the bottom of world press freedom indices alongside Syria and North Korea.
See above. And here is what Sir Harold Evans, one of the greatest living British journalists, had to say on this subject only this week: ‘ . . . the exaggeration of some of the papers, comparing Britain to Zimbabwe, is so ridiculous, so self-interested as to destroy confidence in the very freedom of speech they claim to protect’.
Further, the British Government, which decriminalised defamation in 2009, should also take strong steps encouraging Commonwealth countries to repeal criminal defamation laws. But Britain will be in no position to do that if you have signed a Royal Charter which will be seized on by enemies of free speech everywhere eager to impose similar controls. Britain will have abrogated its rights and the world will be worse off for that. We urge you, Ma’am, as the final guarantor of freedom of expression across the UK and your Commonwealth, not to sign this Charter.
What is most striking about this letter, besides its total failure to recognise the painstaking care taken in the Royal Charter to protect freedom of expression, is that it takes no account whatsoever of the shocking background to the Royal Charter and to the Leveson Inquiry before it. For years British national newspapers have, as the judge put it, ‘wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people’. The Inquiry concluded that behind this lay a sick press culture and a cynical abuse by newspaper bosses of the idea of self-regulation. Not a word is spared in this letter, however, to acknowledge the suffering that has been caused to British people by people and organisations who have besmirched the very idea of a free press. Where were the organisations listed below when British newspaper employees were hacking phones, ganging up to libel innocent people, intruding into private grief, bullying, blackmailing and fabricating? On the available evidence either these organisations didn’t care or they preferred to join most British newspapers in pretending it wasn’t happening. What sort of example is that to set the people of Botswana and Sri Lanka?
Signed by the following members of the Coordinating Committee of Press Freedom Organisations:
COMMONWEALTH PRESS UNION MEDIA TRUST, London,
UK FIPP – THE WORLDWIDE MAGAZINE MEDIA ASSOCIATION, London, UK
INTER AMERICAN PRESS ASSOCIATION, Miami, USA
INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF BROADCASTING, Montevideo, Uruguay
INTERNATIONAL PRESS INSTITUTE, Vienna, Austria
WORLD ASSOCIATION OF NEWSPAPERS & NEWS PUBLISHERS, WAN-IFRA, Paris, France; Darmstadt, Germany
WORLD PRESS FREEDOM COMMITTEE, Paris, France; Washington DC, USA