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From PCC to Royal Charter: The Forming of a New Press Regulatory Body

Submitted by on April 10, 2013 – 11:54 pmNo Comment

Are you a relevant publisher? Guide for Leveson and press self-regulation.

Dr Benedetta Brevini, responsible for communication in the Media Reform Coalition (MRC), a coalition consisting of 20 different organisations from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) to the Hacked Off group headed by actor Hugh Grant, says the outcome of a Royal Charter  as the new press regulatory body wasn’t quite what  they had envisioned.

It was a Tuesday afternoon in a noisy café in North London, Dr Brevini sipped her coffee and with a serious look on her face said: “This Royal Charter is an ancient constitutional way of regulating. From a civil law perspective, from a person who has been studying law in Southern Europe, it is really interesting that they have to use a Royal Charter when there are easier options.”

The regulation known as the Royal Charter that Dr Brevini is referring to was agreed in a deal between the three main political parties on 18 March, and would allow the setting up of an independent regulator with powers to impose hefty fines on UK publications and demand apologies to victims of press harassment. It is also expected to preserve press freedom. The Charter will need to be approved at the meeting of the Privy Council, an advisory body to the Queen comprised predominantly of senior politicians, in May this year.

Dr Brevini, originally from Italy, has an interestingly chequered history from studying law to working as a journalist in her country, the US and the UK, to writing books on media regulation and lecturing at City University, London so the focus in the area of press regulation is not new to her.

A Mix of Voices

She is of course just one individual who is a part of the huge MRC who have been pushing for statutory underpinning, a legal requirement that provides some benefits to the body and gives basic definitions of what this body has to represent, when they were formed in September 2011. They have also been calling loudly for an independently run body free from newspaper editors’ influence.

The MRC’s proposals are all very different from the current body that regulates the media, that of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), consisting of editors of most newspapers who examine and address issues regarding the press. During the phone hacking scandal, fingers were pointed at them for being ineffectual at maintaining responsible behaviour of publications and they were  also accused of protecting their own interests and not having enough power to make effective changes for the press.

Putting the idea of a Royal Charter aside, Dr Brevini said: “We have achieved something [though]they agreed that it will be independent and that this independent regulator will be stronger to act. These are incredible achievements.”

She continued, “If you look at the polls, you will see that most people agree on having an independent press regulator, not curbing the press but having people who are watching the guardians [the press]. There was a huge consensus for this. Although I didn’t like that all these talks were not transparent. I think this was a disgrace, the public should have known what was going on behind closed curtains.”

The day the Royal Charter was proposed, Brian Cathcart, 56, representative of the Hacked Off campaign, journalist and Professor of Journalism at Kingston University, went to a meeting at Downing Street. He was invited by David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband and only left in the small hours of the morning. Cathcart, who was already not well accepted by some journalists for backing the campaigners of ‘press intrusion’, was later lambasted by some of the press for being there that night as no other journalists were invited to attend.

Not all journalists felt that way about Cathcart. Some supported his work and remained by his side, while others felt indifferent towards him. Robert Orr, 38, has been a Financial Times (FT) Commissioning Editor of Special Reports for 14 years, and left his hometown of Edinburgh 16 years ago. Speaking with a faint Scottish accent, and in a personal capacity rather than on behalf of the FT, he said:

“I certainly wouldn’t attack anybody for regulating the press, so I would condemn the attacking of Cathcart. I think part of the problem was the way the whole issue was dealt with. There’s a general acceptance in the industry that the current system is unworkable. I feel, and so does the FT that the process has lost it’s way since Leveson. I think a lot of people in the industry found it odd that newspaper editors were not invited to this late night meeting between various political parties and Hacked Off, to be briefed and discuss government policy when members of a campaign were.”

Views on Leveson  Report

The press themselves had their own views on how a new regulatory body should work. One week after the Leveson hearing, newspaper editors were called to Downing Street and told by Cameron, after a short 20-minute meeting, that they would have to implement all of the Leveson report’s recommendations.

The editors had a few days to show progress by all being in agreement with Leveson’s report. A meeting to discuss the issue was held at the Delauney Restaurant in London. Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, spoke of the event being a historical moment, having them all in one room together. He said: “An unseen hand had decided that the 20 or so national editors in the room were not to be trusted with such things. We never met as a group again and the Delaunay agreement was never published.”

As far back as November last year, when Leveson read out the findings of the inquiry, there was a split in the press about what could be an equivalent to the PCC. The Telegraph Media Group and the Daily Mail for instance called for self-regulation of the press. As opposed to the PCC, which was run by the newspapers, this new body would be run by lay members and would have the power to undertake investigations.

Whereas The Times favoured judicial regulation, which means that there would be a legal panel appointed by the Lord Chief Justice that could hear appeals. The Independent, Evening Standard, Guardian and Financial Times called for independent regulation of the press, meaning that there would be a self-regulation plan with an independently appointed chair but few or no serving editors as part of its membership.

Suggestions on what this new press regulatory body should represent also came from the NUJ, who felt that the best way to achieve independent, accountable regulation would be if it was underpinned by statute, where journalists and civil society would play the biggest role. The NUJ cites the Irish model, established in 2008, which they work with today. There a Press Council was created together with a Press Ombudsman.

Irishman Donnacha De Long, 37, ex-president, current National Executive and Head of the Recruitment Taskforce at the NUJ, said: “ In Ireland the industry created a regulatory body and put it together in a way that was acceptable to them and found that this was a better way of doing press regulation than had previously existed there. Then, the government recognised that body in statute by putting a reference to it under conditions that defined the regulatory body which they put into libel law.”

He continued: “Statutory recognition means that members of that regulatory body get benefits in the courts. In contrast to here, where they are talking about exemplary damages, in Ireland it’s the reverse. Damages are reduced if you happen to be a member of the regulator, because it shows a commitment to trying to do things right even if you make a mistake. That’s what statutory underpinning, statutory recognition and statutory backstop means.”

Old Royal Charters and New Beginnings

Royal Charters have been used in Europe since medieval times. They are documents issued by monarchs granting a right or power to an individual or a body. They have since been used to found royal hospitals, charities, universities, cities and professional bodies. Some of the most well known Royal Charters in this country are the Bank of England, the British Red Cross and the BBC.

With regards to press regulation, a new body would be established by Royal Charter, which would then act as a verifier for the new press regulator. This new Royal Charter would have a clause that requires a two thirds majority vote as a safeguard against future governments, so it will not be possible to change or abolish its laws. This is different to how Royal Charters usually work, as they normally can easily be overturned or amended by ministers.

To become a member of the new press regulator would be voluntary but it could come with benefits for those who join like in Ireland, as De Long said, where members of the Press Council could receive reduced damages in court due to their membership.

The charter itself needs to be drafted, and at this stage it is still too early to know the exact details of how the body is going to be run, and how it will be protected by the law. Issues such as a code of conduct to protect journalists and a defamation bill are just some of the big aspects that the MRC, NUJ and others are waiting to see addressed before they will be truly satisfied that the charter will be effective. In the end it seems that the Royal Charter would not be much different from what these organisations had envisaged, the difference truly lies with the implementation of this new regulatory body.

While a new press regulatory body is being discussed the PCC has not yet been dissolved and staff are still employed in the organisation. Dr Ian Walden has been a Professor of Information and Communications Law at Queen Mary’s University London since 1992, as well as being one of the ten independent lay commissioners for the PCC. His job is to look at recommendations given to them by the secretariat and review, accept, amend or reject any decision. He spoke about how the commissioners would retire gracefully as the new team of independent persons would be appointed and “who will probably not be very different from the current bunch.”

On the forming of the new regulatory body and the PCC’s shortcoming’s, Dr Walden said: “I am relatively agnostic about some limited form of statutory underpinning as proposed by Leveson. I do not think it will be the end of our free press, but the politicians have not handled the post-Leveson situation very well. Phone hacking is a criminal offence and has been dealt with, badly, by the police. Investigatory powers for the PCC could have identified the issue earlier, but not necessarily so. The Financial Services Authority was not able to identify the banking problems and most fraud.”

Whatever defence is presented on behalf of the PCC comes too late. No matter how much they protest and compare themselves to other organisations, which did not act quickly enough to the phone hacking scandal either, too many people’s lives were being ruined and the damage had long been done. In July 2011 just after Rupert Murdoch closed The News of the World and anger was running high,  87 per cent of the population was in favour of a new regulator to clean up the newspaper industry. This poll was according to a report by TNS BMRB a leading social research agency for UK and international policymakers. Seven months later, that figure had only slightly dropped to 83 per cent, with a large majority being in favour of the Leveson report’s recommendations. 79 per cent said that  it should look at the conduct of all newspapers, not just those involved in the phone hacking scandal.

300 Years of Press Freedom

Even with the majority of the public backing this new regulatory body, for some publications this is not enough and will probably never be a good enough excuse to abolish the PCC or accept the Royal Charter.

From the outset, there have even been accusations by certain publications that the state is dismantling 300 years of press freedom. For instance a few weeks ago Fraser Nelson, Editor of The Spectator, spoke about why his magazine will not sign the Royal Charter. The latest edition has a big “NO” on the cover, and underneath it says, “Why we aren’t signing.” His editorial reads: “But the press has a choice. It can sign up to David Cameron’s peculiar Royal Charter press club, with its medieval dress code, or it can decline. I strongly suspect that newspapers will give their own ‘no’ to the Royal Charter.”

This has been followed by a recent New Statesman editorial called “Press reform is too important to be cooked up in a late-night deal” with a stand-first that reads “The New Statesman does not see its interests served by regulation designed to suit politicians.” Similar sentiments can be found in editorials for the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Mirror, The Sun and Daily Express.

These views are surprising to De Long, who said: “What we have been at pains to constantly point out is who the members of this body in Ireland are. This is not a mysterious body with lots of strange members in it: The Mirror Group, which is part of the same group here, the Irish Sun, equivalent to the UK Sun owned by News International, The Irish Sunday Times which is also part of News International, The Irish Star, half owned by Northern and Shell who also own Star and Express over here and the Irish Mail which shares the same as owner as The Daily Mail here. While many of the UK papers are saying they would never accept any form of statutory underpinning, their Irish counterparts voluntarily joined with barely a squeak of complaint.”

Robert Buckland, 44, Tory MP for South Swindon, and Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission shared his views on the confusion and hostility as being down to a small misunderstanding. He said: “The Royal Charter sets up the recognition body that will verify a new regulator, it is not the regulator itself.  I think that much of the debate has been clouded by a failure to make this distinction.”

Buckland has supported the Leveson report so strongly, that he recently entitled a piece in The Guardian, before the Royal Charter was decreed, “Unless the Royal Charter delivers on Leveson, I cannot back it.” He believes that newspapers had their chance to get involved, feels that the process towards a Royal Charter was justified and is so far satisfied with the outcome. He said: “Newspaper editors have had regular meetings with Oliver Letwin during the process so they had plenty of opportunities to have an input. They also gave evidence to Leveson, so their views were taken into account prior to the publication of his report.”

He continued, “Nearly four months had elapsed since the publication of the Leveson Report, so although the final stages seemed frenetic, this was not something produced on the back of a cigarette packet. There were several versions of the Royal Charter that were the subject of lengthy negotiations prior to the final agreement. I think that the Royal Charter properly reflects the Leveson principles and satisfied the tests I set out in my article. I agree, however, that further consideration should be given to the legislative provisions relating to damages and costs with particular reference to online media. There will still be time before the end of this session of Parliament in early May for further amendments to be made to the legislation.”

Buckland’s mention of online media refers to another area where press regulation has caused panic as there was talk about treating online in the same way as print media when it comes to regulation. As FT editor Robert Orr said: “Every small blogger could be caught in this, so what is to separate them from the FT? Those who are putting their thoughts out there into the public sphere, even on Twitter, could they be affected by this? It just hasn’t been thought through. More powerful people than myself seem to be of that opinion.”

In response to the fears of the online community, the government removed small-scale bloggers from being answerable to media regulation and are seeking to define what online press like activity actually is.

The arguments against the Royal Charter seem to come from a mix of confusion and from those who want to run things the way that they always have.With the PCC, it seemed that it was impossible to govern what was considered public interest. Shortcomings on their part included apologies being pushed far into the back pages of newspapers, and almost no accountability for any harassments or errors made by the press.

Arguments for a free press that is absolute should include integrity and  should hold those walking over others’ personal freedoms to obtain a story, because it wants increase a publications circulation, as responsible for wrongdoing. The way some of the press performed in the past did not work, and there have been actions to address this. We can only hope that the UK can move into the right direction, making the proposed changes. However, the future of the press regulator will probably only be known at the end of May.


Time Line:

The story so far…

May 2000 Rebekah Brooks, Wade as she was called then, appointed Editor of News of the World (NoW). It is alleged that under her three-year leadership, journalists at the paper started hacking phones of the parents of Soham murder victims and of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. She moved to The Sun in 2003.

January 2003 Andy Coulson, new Editor of NoW, appears with Wade before a Commons Committee. Wade admits she paid police for information. Coulson denies any wrongdoing on the paper’s part.

2005 – 2007 Royal Editor Clive Goodman is suspected of hacking Prince William’s phone by Buckingham Palace, after writing about the Prince’s knee injury. Scotland Yard called in December, and in August 2006 Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire are arrested for illegal phone hacking.

Investigations into phone hacking at the NoW reveal that they were only done to celebrities, politicians and members of the British Royal family.

July 2011 Leveson Inquiry is set up to look into ethics and practices of the British press, with Lord Justice Leveson as Chairman. The inquiry found that phones of relatives of deceased British soldiers, 7/7 London bomb victims and murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler were also hacked. A public outcry against News Corporation owner Rupert Murdoch ensued.

July 2011 the phone hacking scandal results in the 168-year-old News of the World being closed down by owner Rupert Murdoch, as the press was still answerable to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

September 2011 Formation of the Media Reform Coalition (MRC) at Goldsmiths University, made up of academics and 20 different organisations, the most prominent being Hacked Off, which supported hacking victims including actor Hugh Grant, one of the speakers for the organisation.

The MRC’s proposal for what should now take the PCC’s place was statutory underpinning, meaning an independent body that would reside over the press as a watchdog. Unlike the PCC, this body would have the power to enforce legal measures on any illegal actions committed by publications, including abuses of power such as phone hacking.

14 November 2011 Lord Justice Leveson opens hearings saying: “The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this Inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?”

29 November 2012 Lord Leveson’s outcome is published in a 2,000-page report with a 48 page executive summary. Part one of the inquiry examines the press looking at its culture, practices and ethics, particularly focusing on its relationship with the public, police and politicians.

November 2012 – March 2013 David Cameron led the way with talks on a new press regulatory body but was under a lot of pressure from a Commons defeat and subsequently withdrew from talks on press regulation. Instead, he put his proposals to vote in the Commons. Liberal Democrats and Labour were furious with Cameron and tabled amendments for a press regulation.

18 March 2013 Declaration of a Royal Charter as a result of these discussions. In a speech on the day, Cameron said: “It protects the rights of the vulnerable and the innocent. If this system is implemented, the country should have confidence that the terrible suffering of innocent victims like the Dowlers, the McCanns and Christopher Jefferies should never be repeated. My message to the press is now very clear – we have had the debate, now it is time to get on and make this system work.”

The Royal Charter will need to be approved by a Privy Council answerable to the Queen, which will be approved in May this year.

Fears have been sparked by some members of the press who do not back the Royal Charter; worrying that for the first time in 300 years the British press will be answerable to anyone but itself and its own regulation.

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