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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.