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Proposed newspaper charter is open to political manipulation and may not gain wide acceptance
It is widely accepted that the Press Complaints Commission, which Ed Miliband reportedly described as a “toothless poodle”, is not effective. However, there are concerns that the proposed system of regulation embodied in the draft Royal Charter published on 11 October could undermine the freedom and independence of the press.
One of the concerns expressed about the charter is that it could be amended by politicians, for example to inhibit reporting deemed to adversely affect national security.The draft charter does not propose a system of direct regulation of the press by politicians. Instead, it would establish a recognition panel. A regulator, or multiple regulators, established by the press could apply for recognition from the panel. This would be reviewed at set intervals or on an ad hoc basis and could be withdrawn.
The BBC has been able to use its Royal Charter to assert its independence. Despite intense media scrutiny of the BBC’s governance in the past year there have been no political attempts to amend the BBC’s charter. This example of the Royal Charter regime in the broadcasting context shows that a Royal Charter could help to support, rather than undermine, press freedom.
However, it is important to point out one of the key differences between the BBC’s charter and the draft press charter. The draft provides that amendments would require a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament. Amendments could theoretically be proposed at any time.
By comparison, the present BBC charter provides for a period of incorporation up to 31 December 2016 and does not offer the ability to make interim amendments. It would be most surprising if the BBC’s charter were to be amended other than as a result of negotiations leading up to renewal of the charter in 2016.
Given the differences between the BBC’s charter and the draft press charter there is no guarantee that there would be the same political reticence to amend the draft press one.
Nevertheless, any amendment to the draft charter would require cross-party support in both Houses and would likely be subject to intense media scrutiny. Importantly, there is nothing in the draft charter to prevent a regulator withdrawing from the recognition panel regime. Politicians would be aware that such a withdrawal could undermine the effectiveness of the whole system. This should help to keep any political amendments within reasonable limits.
The key to the success of the proposed regime is securing wide participation by the industry. However, to date, politicians have not managed to allay the concerns of the press. The Spectator swiftly rejected the draft Royal Charter and John Whittingdale MP has reportedly predicted that only a few newspapers will sign up to it.
There is a real risk that a high proportion of the industry will choose to operate outside the Royal Charter framework. If so, it is difficult to see how the proposed recognition panel could play a meaningful role.