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.

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

The Leveson Inquiry. Photograph: Getty Images
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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