Uncharted Territory

March 18, 2013

When Politicians Go Mad (Part 1): The UK’s Press Royal Charter

Filed under: 2010 General Election, Media, Politics, UK — Tim Joslin @ 5:30 pm

What is it about Clegg, Cameron and now Miliband? Who the hell do they think they are to repeatedly attempt to make constitutional decisions for all time?

I refer, of course, to the clause in the proposed Royal Charter for the Recognition Panel for UK press regulation (pdf) that allows the Charter to be changed (or terminated) only by a 2/3 majority in both Houses of Parliament.

The last time I became agitated about the UK political process was in a couple of posts, It’s the Executive, Stupid and (presciently) Adieu, AV, both written shortly after the 2010 election when inter alia Clegg and Cameron were attempting to lock us into 5 year fixed term parliaments for all time. It seems Miliband has now joined the party as well, since (as far as I can gather) he’s all for the 2/3 majority clause.

Quite apart from the merits of the particular media “legislation” represented by the proposed Royal Charter, it seems to me fairly obvious that all legislation should be under continual and periodic review, in the same way as an organisation’s Business Plan or a Project Plan. Are the organisational structures and processes that have been established actually meeting their objectives? Not that our politicians ever define any objectives or goals in the first place, as I might have mentioned before.

And – to continue stating the obvious – circumstances may change in future. After all, the media domain is evolving at a rapid pace.

And to claim that the current mediocre generation of politicians have a level of wisdom and insight that will never be exceeded in future would be to invite ridicule.

What we’re about to get is a “Royal Charter for the Recognition Panel for UK press regulation”. Yeap, Parliament is going to be two removes away from what amounts to Press Complaints Commission (PCC) 2.0. Instead of defining the terms of reference of a press regulator, a “Recognition Panel” is being set up to “recognise”, that is (as I understand it), license one or more potential regulators. The Charter includes some vague guidelines as to the recognition criteria.

The idea of the Royal Charter rather than normal legislation is to somehow make it seem that government isn’t “interfering” with press regulation. Come on! What exactly is Parliament there for if it’s not to make laws? We elect our MPs, not our media barons. And who’s being fooled by the Royal Charter device anyway? The irony is that a Royal Charter can – again, if I understand the arcane procedures correctly – be modified more easily than normal legislation, i.e. by the Privy Council who (it seems) advise the monarch who is obliged to take heed, thereby making any future government interference possible without consulting Parliament! Hence the need for a clause requiring the approval of the House for any changes. Which makes it legislation for those who don’t think it is already. Except, of course, for those still claiming it’s not legislation.

The Parliamentary response to Leveson seems to me to have degenerated into insanity. A bandwagon (that would be – surprise, surprise! – in the mainstream media, not through widespread mass-participation campaigning) has developed around a bizarre idea that the Press (or “free speech”) should not be limited by law. Even though “free speech” is already constrained, most notably by laws against libel and contempt of court. When people invoke vague principles, in this case “the right to free speech”, you can be pretty sure that’s cover for another interest. To state the obvious, the media are simply trying to preserve as much of the status quo as possible. And Cameron is taking their side to keep them sweet and because the status quo serves the Tories quite nicely thank you.

I want Parliament to do its job and debate and agree what the Press can and can’t do. To lay down in law, in as much detail as required, how the right to free speech is limited by the need to preserve other rights. And to fix the law in future as and when further problems arise.

For me the issue is privacy. I’d like a right to privacy enacted in law, not subject to interpretation by a Regulator accountable to a Recognition Board established by unamendable Royal Charter. Remember, the papers are allegedly in trouble not for allegedly invading privacy per se, but for allegedly doing it in ways that happened to allegedly be illegal (and allegedly getting caught), i.e. by allegedly hacking phones, allegedly buying information from alleged public officials and so on. In some alleged cases they might have been able to obtain the same information by legal means, e.g. kiss and tell.

The real danger with the Royal Charter is that the press regulation it produces will be ineffective (which is quite likely as, if my understanding is correct*, the actual regulatory board(s) will be 2/3* industry – inevitably acting in their common interest – and only 1/3* lay) and, with a 2/3 majority for change required in both Houses, either of the two main political parties will be able to veto any changes to fix the problem, for their own narrow ends.

PS I see the Guardian’s political blog has just posted news of a dissenting voice in Parliament:

“Charles Walker, the Conservative MP who chairs the Commons procedure committee, told PoliticsHome he was unhappy about the provision in the royal charter saying it could only be changed by two-thirds majority in the Commons and in the Lords.

‘It’s not how we do things in this country. It should be a 50% plus one majority. Parliament could pass a bill to overturn it anyway. The only precedent for this is the fixed term parliaments, and I voted against that on the same basis.’ ”

Hear! Hear!

——–
* This is incorrect. It’s the committee drawing up the media standards code that is weighted towards the industry. According to the latest (18th March) version of the Charter (pdf), Schedule 3, clause 5, the Board itself must:

“b) comprise a majority of people who are independent of the press;
c) include a sufficient number of people with experience of the industry who may include former editors and senior or academic journalists;
d)not include any serving editor;”

Clause 7 keeps changing and now reads:

“The standards code which is the responsibility of the Code Committee, must be approved by the Board or remitted to the Code Committee with reasons. The Code Committee will be appointed by the Board, in accordance with best practices for public appointments, and comprised of equal proportions of independent members, serving journalists (being national or regional journalists, or, where relevant to the membership of the self-regulatory body, local or on-line journalists) and serving editors. There will be a biennial public consultation by the Code Committee, the results of which must be considered openly with the Board.”

Sorry for any confusion.

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1 Comment »

  1. “Parliament could pass a bill to overturn it anyway.” This is the most important part of the Charles Walker quote. These so called entrenched clauses are paper tigers in the UK constitutional system. If a simple majority really wanted to they could simply repeal the legislation that established the entrenchment with a 50% plus one majority. This goes for both fixed term Parliaments (and here it is even more of a paper tiger, since a 50% plus one majority could simply vote no confidence) and for this Royal Charter.

    Comment by Nova — March 18, 2013 @ 10:15 pm


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