Hacked Off needs to know when to stop fighting

In danger of plucking defeat out of the jaws of victory.

The campaign group Hacked Off is beginning to resemble a rebel force which doesn’t know when to stop fighting. And it is in danger of plucking defeat out of the jaws of victory with a state-imposed system of press regulation which is set to go to the Queen for approval at the next meeting of the Privy Council on 15 May. This is because there is no point in creating a perfect theoretical system of press regulation which no-one uses.

Hacked Off got a dream deal on 18 March when the three main political parties agreed to a beefed-up Royal Charter-backed system of press regulation. The dream goes that the new regulator will be completely independent of Parliament and the press, editors will be in a minority on its code committee and it will have the ability to compel placement of front-page apologies.

It is backed up by two pieces of legislation which made their way on to the statute books last week. Under the Enterprise and Regulator Reform Act the Royal Charter, once okayed by the Privy Council, cannot be changed without a two thirds majority of both houses of Parliament. Under the Crime and Courts Act, news publishers outside the state-approved regulator will be subject to exemplary damages and increased libel and privacy case legal costs (except for a large list of exempt titles including blogs which turn over less than £2m and council-run newspapers).

For Hacked Off it is the perfect solution. Perfect except for the fact that most of the newspaper and magazine industry have now said they cannot stomach it. And without the buy-in of publishers themselves a new system of self-regulation cannot work.

Publishers have rebelled because they refuse to surrender total control over the regulator. That is no longer self-regulation as envisaged by Leveson, they say, and in any case they question why they should fund and organise what is effectively a quango. The regional press is deeply concerned that the arbitration arm set out in the Charter will lead to “crippling” new libel claims being made against them. And there remains a profound principled objection to a statute-backed system of regulation being imposed on publishers by the state. Their solution is to resolutely reject the Government plan and instead offer their own Royal Charter.

The main differences between their plan and the Government one are outlined here, but in a nutshell the publishers want:

  • A representative on the Recognition Panel which will licence the new regulator (and the ability to veto appointments to the board)
  • An arbitration arm which is optional rather than obligatory
  • No legislative underpinning but instead a system where a unanimous vote of the Recognition Panel, the regulator’s board and the various industry trade associations can agree to amend the charter.

The two sides are not so far apart that a deal cannot be done. But this will need publishers, representatives of the ‘victims’ and Parliamentarians to put down their rhetorical weapons and  negotiate.

The press cannot be compelled to join a regulator which most publishers fundamentally disagree with any more than the Government can regulate any citizen’s right to express themselves as they wish (within the bounds of libel, privacy and the criminal law on contempt of court).

If the Government Royal Charter to regulate the press is signed by the Queen in two week’s time, some publishers could ignore it and create their own regulator taking a chance on exemplary damages rules which may, in any case, be unenforceable. Many more titles might opt to be part of no regulator at all leaving the victims of future press excesses and mistakes with nowhere to turn. So for the sake of the victims, Hacked Off (like the publishers) now has to take a more pragmatic approach.

Hugh Grant, Hacked Off campaigner. Photograph: Getty Images

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

Photo: Getty
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Britain cannot shirk its duty to defend Hong Kong from China's authoritarianism

Arrests of pro-democracy activists show China is breaching its commitments to the “one country, two systems” agreement.

When Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in June that the Sino-British Joint Declaration no longer has any “practical significance”, shivers were sent down the spines of those who want democracy to flourish in Hong Kong.

“It is not at all binding for the central government's management over Hong Kong. The UK has no sovereignty, no power to rule and no power to supervise Hong Kong after the handover,” he said.

Going by the British government's failure to respond firmly to the jailing of Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow for standing up for democracy, it appears the UK agrees.

The Sino-British Joint Declaration, signed in 1984, was committed to the “one country, two systems” principle, making Hong Kong a Special Administrative Region of China but ensuring a range of freedoms, which future British governments would ensure were upheld.

China’s creeping influence over Hong Kong’s legal affairs and freedom of speech are not new. Earlier this year, Amnesty International said the human rights situation in Hong Kong was at its worst since the handover in 1997. That assessment followed the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers, later found to have been in the custody of the Chinese police, with one describing having been blindfolded and kept in a tiny cell. In other instances journalists have been attacked by police. 

But in Hong Kong, resistance is on display in familiar scenes on the streets. Tens of thousands of people have marched through the financial and legal hub in protest at the jailing of the three pro-democracy activists for their role in the Umbrella Revolution in 2014 – a fundamentally peaceful movement.

It was a moment where people came out to fight for universal suffrage, which I continue to support as key to safeguarding the island’s stability and prosperity (and something Hong Kong’s Basic Law secures by stating that the chief executive should be selected by “by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures”).

For showing courage in fighting for universal suffrage, Wong has already served 80 hours of community service and Law 120 hours. Chow received a three-week suspended prison sentence a year ago. Yet now Wong has been jailed for six months, Chow for seven months and Law for eight months.

Wong was even summoned again to court today for an ongoing contempt charge related to the 2014 "Occupy" pro-democracy protests.

Perhaps more importantly, Wong is now not eligible to stand for the legislative council for five years due to his six-month jail sentence, while Law, who was a member of the council, was removed from office.

This all comes after a 2016 order from Beijing for Hong Kong’s government to dismiss officials thought lacking in their allegiance to China, which led to six legislators being banned from holding office.

Many, including Hong Kong’s last Governor, Chris Patten, have suggested Wong, Law and Chow's sentences were a deliberate attempt to prevent them from taking on these legislative positions.

Patten added that he hopes friends of Hong Kong will speak out, having previously written the UK is “selling its honour” to secure trade deals with China, letting down pro-democracy activists who have been trying to fight to maintain freedoms that were guaranteed during the deal that ended over 100 years of British rule.

The prising open of the case by the Hong Kong government to push for tougher punishments reinforces concerns about Beijing’s willingness to interfere in Hong Kong’s democracy. As Amnesty International stated, seeking jail terms was a “vindictive attack” on freedom of expression.

China’s enthusiasm for subverting democracy has recently been on show in its attempts to censor Cambridge University Press (CUP), which initially complied with a Chinese request to block access to more than 300 articles from the China Quarterly, a leading China studies journal, including articles on Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Following public pressure CUP have now reversed their position.

But while freedoms granted under the Joint Declaration may have contributed to Hong Kong becoming fertile ground for those supportive of democracy and critical of China, it does not free the United Kingdom from its responsibility to uphold the “one country, two systems” principle, which promises extensive autonomy and freedoms to the island, except in the area of foreign relations and military defence.

Read more: The dream deferred by Chris Patten

The Joint Declaration is a legally binding treaty. It is registered with the UN and is still in force. As the UK is a co-signatory, it should be doing all it can to make sure it is upheld.

Yet, in late June one of Hong Kong’s most respected democracy activists Martin Lee described the British government as "just awful. I’m afraid I cannot find any kind words to say about that.”

It is not for either China or the UK to unilaterally decide the Joint Declaration is null and void. The people of Hong Kong understand that and are standing up for democracy in the face of adversity. Our Government has a duty to stand by them.

Catherine West is the Labour MP for Hornsey and Wood Green