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
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder