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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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.