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The Royal Charter: Press regulation without volunteers

The New Year sees the UK join the likes of Ethiopia, Libya, Azerbaijan and Myanmar in receiving a press freedom mission from WAN-IFRA. Incredible! How has it come to this? Jon Slattery looks at the ongoing battle over press regulation.

By Jon Slattery

Nadine Dorries reacted angrily to an inquiry by a Sunday Mirror reporter about her daughter’s £35,000 a year taxpayer-funded job providing the Tory MP with secretarial support.

She warned journalist Ben Glaze: “Be seen within a mile of my daughters and I will nail your balls to the floor… using your own front teeth. Do you get that?”

Dorries is not famed for her subtlety and, in a crude way, her threat summed up the feelings that many journalists and publishers have about the new Royal Charter on press regulation which is backed by all the major political parties and was approved by the Privy Council in October.

There is a fear that any, however slight to begin with, political control will inevitably lead to an emasculation of the press. It is not just tabloid journalists, who revel in their image as being part of a rowdy and unruly profession outside political control, claiming the Royal Charter is wrong in principle.

BBC economics editor Robert Peston, giving this year’s James Cameron Memorial Lecture at City University, said he was “profoundly uncomfortable with any kind of role for the state, even one simply approving the modus operandi and membership of a putative self-regulatory body, as per the current government plan.”

The broadcast model

Supporters of stronger regulation of the press often highlight the statutory controls on broadcasters and argue that it has not stopped them producing important investigative journalism.

But Peston, who has worked for the Financial Times, Independent and Sunday Telegraph, argued: “I do not believe that I would have been able to do what I have done at the BBC if I had worked all my life in regulated television. My ability to take calculated risks to break stories that I believe to be important owes a huge amount to the fact that I grew up and was trained in newspapers.”

Peston said he feared the long-term consequence of the Royal Charter would be the “sanitising” of the press. He also said the “unavoidable obsession with editorial balance and what the BBC euphemistically calls ‘policy’ creates a risk-averse culture, which means that when young journalists are trained and made at the BBC, they are taught about how to follow the rules, but not enough about how to stir things up.”

Political pressure

Politicians’ pronouncements since the Royal Charter was approved have also concerned many in the press.

There was David Cameron’s warning over the Guardian’s security surveillance revelations, based on the Edward Snowden leaks. He said: “I don't want to have to use injunctions or D notices or the other tougher measures. I think it's much better to appeal to newspapers' sense of social responsibility. But if they don't demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act."

The Guardian noted: “The real problem politicians have is that few journalists trust their commitment to press freedom in practice. The recent behaviour of MPs over the revelations by Edward Snowden about the NSA's mass surveillance has not helped Westminster's cause.”

Although Guardian-bashers in Fleet Street have joined MPs in the chorus of disapproval over the paper’s security revelations, the Telegraph in a leader, claimed: "The Guardian’s recent investigation into state spying is exactly the kind of reporting that could spark a moral panic among politicians and give them cause to limit what the press can publish. If Parliament can find the numbers to impose a royal charter upon the industry, it can also find the numbers necessary to censor it."

The Guardian’s editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger was summoned before the Home Affairs Select Committee over the Snowden revelations and interrogated by MPs. He was asked: “Do you love your country?”

Press Freedom Mission

The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) said its decision to send an unprecedented press freedom mission to the UK was in response to the actions by the British government. It added: “The mission is a direct response to recent actions widely seen as contrary to press freedom guarantees: government interference in the regulation of the independent press, through the Royal Charter and associated legislation, but also the criticism of the Guardian for its coverage of the revelations from former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.”

WAN-IFRA has previously sent press freedom missions to Ethiopia, South Africa, Libya, Yemen, Tunisia, Mexico, Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Myanmar, and many other countries, but never to the United Kingdom.

International reaction from press freedom groups reflected concern over the example the Royal Charter has set for the rest of the world. Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists said: "We are disappointed that British politicians have decided to ignore the concerns of many international and British press freedom advocates and embed press regulation in law. Press legislation, no matter how well intentioned, could set an unfortunate precedent for countries - particularly those that have inherited elements of the British parliamentary system - that seek to restrict media freedom."

Foreign observers, especially those in the US, have highlighted that the UK has no enshrined constitutional right to free speech.

An attack on the BBC by Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps in the Sunday Telegraph also caused alarm bells to ring in the press among those who felt it demonstrated the potential for politicians to try and interfere in editorial matters. Shapps criticised the BBC’s reporting on immigration and government spending cuts and suggested that other broadcasters could get a slice of the licence fee.

Former BBC director-general Greg Dyke responded: "This is an attempt to pressurise and intimidate the BBC, which is what governments do, and it is the BBC's job to resist. You can't let politicians define impartiality."

Then there was an emboldened Ed Miliband following his spat with the Daily Mail over the feature on his father Ralph Miliband, the Marxist academic, headlined: “The Man Who Hated Britain”.

The Financial Times reported that, at a fund-raising dinner, the Labour leader had said: “It is incredibly important that we fight back against them (hostile newspapers). The only thing these people understand is people who are strong and will stand up to them and that is what we’re going to do.”

The FT also reported: “Many in the Miliband circle believe that the stranglehold of the daily newspapers has been broken in a world of social media.”

Ex-Sun editor David Yelland, giving the first Leveson Lecture, argued: "Whether they are mad or just lack self-awareness, the fact is editors and proprietors in this country see themselves as the small guy, the powerless man struggling against the establishment. What they fail to grasp is that they have become the establishment themselves. They are the powerful, and others are the weak. Ask the McCanns, the Dowlers, or Christopher Jefferies."

Dead in the water?

However, whether you see the press as a victim or a vested interest, what practical use is a Royal Charter without the support of the press? As The Times put it, after publishers lost a legal appeal: "A recognition body that nobody recognises. A system of voluntary regulation without volunteers. That is the shambles to which the regulation of the British press descended last night when the High Court refused an application from publishers for a judicial review of the rejection of the press’s proposals for oversight of self-regulation."

Even the Guardian, which voiced its concerns about the influence of major publishers over the Independent Press Standards Organisation, described the Royal Charter as “a medieval instrument”.

The bulk of the newspaper and magazine industry has remained solidly behind IPSO. A last minute concession over the Royal Charter’s proposed arbitration service aimed at winning over the regional press was firmly rejected. Southern Daily Echo editor Ian Murray, president of the Society of Editors, blogged: “An attempt to convince the regional press to back the Royal Charter by offering concessions over the proposed arbitration system failed… The Culture Secretary and others have made a grave, and I would say frankly insulting mistake in assuming that regional editors see this matter solely in terms of pounds and pence. The principle of a free press is as important to the people of Southampton – or Portsmouth or Oxford or Glasgow – as it is for those who inhabit the corridors of Westminster.”

Late to the press regulation party came the Impress Project, supported by Sir Harold Evans and a group of free speech campaigners, lawyers and journalists. It wants to develop a regulator independent of politicians and publishers and attract newspapers, magazines and online publishers that don’t want to join IPSO.

It is thought the new Royal Charter-backed system of regulation will not come into force until a year after the recognition body is established, taking the process beyond the 2015 general election.

In contrast, IPSO plans to be up and running by May. Paul Vickers, chairman of the IPSO implementation group, claims: “The response has been overwhelmingly positive, with publishers representing more than 90% of the national press and the vast majority of the regional press, along with major magazine publishers, signing.”

Supporters of IPSO are hopeful they will be able to persuade the national newspapers that remain sceptical about the new organisation, fearing it will be dominated by the big publishers, to join.

The government has generally welcomed IPSO’s progress, although David Cameron has warned, in a Spectator interview, that if the industry does not seek recognition under the Royal Charter for its new regulator, it risks “hideous statutory regulation” in the future from a government taking a harder line against the press. There also remains the threat of punitive costs and exemplary damages in libel cases for those publishers who don’t sign up to the Royal Charter.

IPSO will have to demonstrate it can survive the periodic storms that blow up over newspaper content and behaviour without damaging splits if it is to keep the Royal Charter at bay. It must also show it has teeth so as to stop the likes of Nadine Dorries baring theirs.