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A Royal Charter for the benefit of newspaper editors, not the public

The ways in which the Government has altered Lord Leveson's recommendations is telling.

The Leveson Inquiry. Photograph: Getty Images

Crucially, it [the new regulator] must have the power to demand up-front, prominent apologies.

So said the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in his statement in response to the publication of the Leveson Report on 29th November 2012. This was one of a number of central recommendations in the report, one of what Cameron called the Leveson principles.

Yet the Royal Charter published by the Conservatives on Tuesday 12th February has removed all reference to apologies. Apologies has been replaced with the much weaker and more general remedies. This despite a key Leveson recommendation being that a new regulator should have The power to direct the nature, extent and placement of apologies. This has been changed, and replaced with the power to require (not direct) a remedy, and only after negotiations between the member of public and the newspaper have failed:

In the event of no agreement between a complainant and a subscriber, the power to require the nature, extent and placement of a remedy should lie with the Board (Royal Charter, Schedule 3, #16)

This dilution of Levesons recommendations is typical of much of the Royal Charter. Where Leveson proposed a system that would give power to members of the public and individual journalists, the government has watered down or even removed that power, and given it back to the editors and proprietors.

The journalists conscience clause, for example, which the National Union of Journalists fought so hard for, and which Leveson recommends a new regulatory body should consider requiring, is downgraded to an optional extra. The same with a whistleblowers hotline for journalists who want to report illegality, abuses of the Code or bullying in newsrooms.

The Charter, as published, reeks of a deal done behind closed doors between senior politicians and senior newspaper executives and lawyers. Almost all of the demands made by editors and publishers appear to have been acceded to. There is no statute to prevent the interference of the government in the Royal Charter. Nor is there a legal guarantee of freedom from interference in the press in the future. This would have provided, for the first time, Harold Evans said in his Cudlipp lecture, a legal duty of the government to protect the freedom of the press. No such duty has been proposed.

But the real evidence of press-political collusion is in the fine detail of the Charter. Schedule 3 sets out the so-called recognition requirements for a new regulatory body. These, according to Leveson, are the essential criteria that any new body has to adhere to or it will not be recognized as an independent and effective regulator.

It is these criteria that have changed markedly from the recommendations made by Leveson, and those changes bear a striking similarity to the parts of Leveson the editors were unhappy with.

For example, in their discussions shortly after the publication of Leveson at the Delaunay restaurant, the editors found Levesons recommendation that the Board of the new regulator be responsible for the Code of Practice unacceptable (from leaked Delaunay document). This Leveson recommendation, we then discover, has been transformed in the Royal Charter. So Leveson recommended that:

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.

But in the Charter, control of the Code is given to the Code Committee as now for the Board simply to adopt. Indeed the Charter goes even further and removes the obligation to include independent Board members from the Committee, enabling the editors to choose whoever, and as few, 'independent members' as they want (exactly as the previous discredited Hunt/Black plan proposed):

The standards code must ultimately be adopted by the Board, and written by a Code Committee which is comprised of both independent members and serving editors.

The editors were also strongly against Levesons recommendation that a new regulator have the power to take complaints not just people directly referenced in an article, but from other people too, including representative groups. The Delaunay document shows that editors felt this was unacceptable. Instead, they agreed that third party complaints [are] only to be allowed at [the] discretion of [the] Complaints Committee where there is substantial public interest. Group complaints [are] only to be allowed on matters of accuracy.

And again we find that the recognition criteria in the Royal Charter have been changed to appease the editors. Instead of Levesons criteria #11:

The Board should have the power to hear and decide on complaints about breach of the standards code by those who subscribe. The Board should have the power (but not necessarily in all cases depending on the circumstances the duty) to hear complaints whoever they come from, whether personally and directly affected by the alleged breach, or a representative group affected by the alleged breach, or a third party seeking to ensure accuracy of published information. In the case of third party complaints the views of the party most closely involved should be taken into account.

The Royal Charter changes the criteria to:

'The Board should have the power to hear and decide on complaints about breach of the standards code by those who subscribe. The Board should have the power (but not necessarily in all cases depending on the circumstances the duty) to hear complaints: (a) from anyone personally and directly affected by the alleged breach of the standards code; or (b) where an alleged breach of the code is significant and there is substantial public interest in the Board giving formal consideration to the complaint from a representative group affected by the alleged breach; or (c) from a third party seeking to ensure accuracy of published information. In the case of third party complaints the views of the party most closely involved should be taken into account.'

In other words, it has been altered to map almost exactly to the demands made by the editors. It restricts complaints only to those directly affected, unless there is a significant breach and substantial public interest in doing otherwise (it does not detail who would define significant breach or substantial public interest).

For the last two months senior politicians from the government have been working secretly on a Royal Charter. The impression they gave was that they were working to achieve everything Leveson wanted through Charter rather than through statute. Now we know they were actually working to achieve everything the editors and proprietors wanted out of Leveson, regardless of the interests of the public or individual journalists.

A full comparison of the differences between the Royal Charter and Leveson's recommendations can be found here (pdf)

Martin Moore is the director of the Media Standards Trust