The plan announced by the government for a Royal Charter – which is an edict handed down by the monarch as opposed to a law created by parliament or handed down by a judge – has fiercely divided opinion, both in parliament as well as among the commentariat.
How the new rules will work:
1. The press industry is to set up a regulator which will hear complaints, offer arbitration and initiate inquiries into wrongdoing.
2. A new recognition panel will be set up by Royal Charter to ensure the new regulator meets a set of agreed criteria.
3. The panel will exclude editors, publishers, ministers, MPs and members of Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies.
4. Papers and magazines who sign up to regulation can be fined up to £1 million.
5. Papers which don’t take part in the new scheme will be hit with ‘exemplary damages’ if they lose a court case brought by a member of the public.
How the plans have divided opinion
Evan Harris, the former Lib Dem MP and associate director of Hacked Off, was particularly troubled by the lack of teeth the new watchdog supposedly has to regulate an industry which he says is ‘capable of the worst excesses’:
“This is one of the weakest forms of self-regulation anywhere to oversee one of the presses capable of the worst excesses. This is weaker than the [existing] Press Complaints Commission…In giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry, Cameron set himself a test of meeting the wishes of the victims. These proposals do not meet that test.”
Meanwhile Harriet Harman wrote a lengthy letter to Oliver Letwin in which she argued that there was very little to stop ministers meddling with the proposed Charter:
“We have substantive concerns that the Royal Charter as drafted fails to comply with the recommendations that the Leveson Report makes. At the heart of Leveson’s proposals was that a new system should be independent of politicians and independent of the press.
Firstly, there is nothing to stop the Privy Council, which consists of ministers, from amending the Charter at any time and thereby changing the terms of the recognition and regulatory framework.
Secondly, Leveson recommended that, in the event that the recognition body was not Ofcom, the appointment process for the recognition body should be independent of the press. The process set out in the draft Royal Charter fails in that respect because of the four people to carry out the appointment process, one is to represent the interests of the press.”
Others have cautiously welcomed Letwin’s proposals, however, as the least bad option, with today’s Times urging the press to ‘support it for fear of something worse’:
“In an unhappy environment for the British press, this Royal Charter makes the best of a bad job. We should be aware, however, of the way it will be interpreted abroad. American publications, particularly the New York Times, have expressed incredulity that Britain could be on the verge of taking this step.”
And the Daily Mail said David Cameron deserved ‘much credit for coming up with a way to impose rigorous, independent self-regulation – the toughest, indeed, since Oliver Cromwell’s day – while avoiding the sledgehammer blow to freedom implicit in statutory control’:
”In defying Lord Justice Leveson and his dreadful celebrity supporters in the Hacked Off campaign (step forward Hugh Grant, Max Mosley and Steve Coogan), the PM has put forward the least bad option so far, showing political courage that commands respect.”