Media Standards Trust statement on Royal Charter

10 11 2013

Media Standards TrustMST welcomes the agreement of a Royal Charter on self-regulation of the press but calls for a British equivalent of the First Amendment

The Media Standards Trust welcomes the agreement of a Royal Charter on Wednesday 30 October 2013 to establish a recognition body and a recognition process for independent self-regulation of the press.

We did not support the use of a Royal Charter to establish a recognition body, and made this clear when it was first proposed. Rather, we supported Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendation to use legislation to give authority to the recognition body.

However, we appreciate that a Royal Charter was proposed in order to assuage newspapers’ concerns and that it was the government’s intention to put Leveson’s recommendations into practice without using legislation.

The MST has closely analysed each of the eight versions of the Royal Charter published since December 2012. This analysis (which can be found here) clearly shows that the final Royal Charter, agreed on 30 October 2013, is very close to the recommendations made by Lord Justice Leveson in his report of 29th November 2012.

This final Charter is significantly closer to Leveson’s recommendations than the first published draft of the Royal Charter, of February 12th 2013. It is far closer than the industry’s PressBoF Charter submitted to the Privy Council in April 2013 (as shown by this analysis).

The final Charter creates a framework that ensures that no recognized regulator can be established that can stop anyone from publishing anything. At the same time it ensures that any recognized regulator will have to work for the public as well as the press.

We welcome the inclusion, in the final Charter, of a clear independent lock on any future changes. Any future change must be unanimously approved by the Recognition Panel, approved by a two thirds majority of the House of Commons, and approved by a two thirds majority of the House of Lords (and, where relevant, approved by the Scottish Parliament).

This protection from change is coupled with protection from political interference in the  Charter. Section 96 of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013protects the Charter from interference by Ministers and Privy Councillors. Separately, the Charter  itself excludes all politicians from the Recognition Panel, from its staff, from its appointments panel and from any regulators’ Board.

The system established by this Royal Charter does not represent a threat to press freedom. There are, however, other threats to press freedom. There is still, for example, no general public interest defence in law, as we called for in oursubmission to the Leveson Inquiry. Terrorism laws, not intended for use against the media, are being used by the government against the media.

For this reason we renew our call for the government to introduce the protection for press freedom in law that Lord Justice Leveson recommended in his report. Leveson wrote:

‘In passing legislation to identify the legitimate requirements to be met by an independent regulator organised by the press, and to provide for a process of recognition and review of whether those requirements are and continue to be met,the law should also place an explicit duty on the Government to uphold and protect the freedom of the press’ (Vol.IV, p.1,807)

To show its commitment to press freedom, and to protect the press from threats already inherent in existing laws, the government should, we believe, accept Leveson’s recommendation and introduce Britain’s equivalent to the First Amendment.

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5 responses

10 11 2013
Andy J

Calling for UK equivalent ot the US constitution’s First Amendment is a lazy and facile remark worthy of the tabloid press. The First Amendment covers far more than just freedom of the press, and in reality the press in the US is more regulated in what it can say than is the ordinary private citizen. I would be interested to know exactly what restrictions the MST think should be swept away by a UK first amendment.
Presumably the MST broadly supports the concept of the Editor’s Code as it currently exists – most of which amounts to self-censorship when it is correctly applied – or does the MST advocate that the press should be allowed to monster people like Chris Jefferies, or gatecrash at private funerals?
The codification of a public interest defence should only be considered when the press as a whole have demonstrated their respect for the criminal law as it currently stands. A call for it to happen now is rather like an habitual burglar demanding that he should be free to carry the tools of his trade, and may only be prosecuted if he is caught red-handed on the job. Until the press have clearly shown that they understand the difference between public interest and what interests the public, I think it is right to hold off on this recommendation. The Telegraph’s publication of the MPs expenses and the Guardian’s handling of the Snowden revelations show that responsible journalism of the Watergate type can be conducted in the UK within the current framework.

10 11 2013
"Robin Lupinyo"

“The Telegraph’s publication of the MPs expenses and the Guardian’s handling of the Snowden revelations show that responsible journalism of the Watergate type can be conducted in the UK within the current framework.”

Except that the Telegraph journalists could have been arrested for handling stolen goods and the partner of a Guardian journalist was detained on suspicion of terrorism and MPs are agitating for Alan Rusbridger to be investigated by police.

The reason there was no criminal inquiry into the Telegraph was because the police and CPS clearly saw there was no public interest in doing so. But the law was not on the Telegraph’s side, and the stolen data on MPs’ expenses was turned down by several other newspaper groups, no doubt on the advice of their lawyers. Complacency is not an argument.

11 11 2013
Andy J

@Robin Lupinyo.
You have reinforced my point.
The Telegraph and Guardian cases are both, arguably, ones where the existing criminal law would apply notwithstanding a First Amendment protection. The fact that the CPS felt there was no public interest in prosecuting the Telegraph, and so far no legal sanction has been applied to the Guardian, indicates that responsible journalism can exist within the current framework.
I concede that were a less benign regime to take power, without some sort of constitutional protection there would be no legal certainty about this, but since such a regime would have the power to change the law in whatever way they wished, even a first amendment wouldn’t really bring absolute certainty either, unless you had a judiciary strong enough to stand up to the government of the day and throw out any case where there was a clear public interest in publishing, much as they can today (vide the Reynolds doctrine which was entirely judge made law).

11 11 2013
"Robin Lupinhyo"

I’m not sure that realpolitik is a better system than the law, certainly as far as a public interest defence is concerned.

The element of the MPs’ expenses story that should concern us is the fact that newspapers turned down the story of the decade because they were worried they would be prosecuted – not just the corporation but individuals potentially losing their liberty. There aren’t many occupations where doing your job well can end up with the CPS considering whether they should put you in the dock. Look at Amelia Hill’s experience with the phone-hacking story. She was investigated – can’t remember if she was arrested but I think so – by the Met for getting officers to leak information to her. If charges had been laid, would she have been able to defend herself by admitting the facts but claiming she was justified? Not to my knowledge. It was not an academic threat and unless she has the stones of a giant then I imagine she had a few sleepless nights.

If we want journalists to investigate wrongdoing rather than write about sport and showbusiness why should we expect them to take greater risks? Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are not monolithic entities, they are decisions – and many of them may seem inconsequential – taken every day by journalists, lawyers, court officials, police officers, civil servants, advertisers and internet service providers, among others. Faced with a choice between doing a story about the X Factor or one based on stolen information about what may or may not be public wrongdoing, which would you pick?

11 11 2013
Media Standards Trust statement on Royal Charte...

[…] MST welcomes the agreement of a Royal Charter on self-regulation of the press but calls for a British equivalent of the First Amendment The Media Standards Trust welcomes the agreement of a Royal C…  […]

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