300 years of press freedom at risk of falling into hands of politicians, says media law expert
A Westcountry media expert has warned the cross-party deal to create a tough new press regulator risks handing control of the press to politicians.
David Cameron will today set out the details of the deal, struck in the small hours of this morning after negotiations, in a statement to the House of Commons this afternoon.
A revised version of the proposed royal charter to govern the regulation of the press will not give the industry a veto over the membership of a new watchdog body, and will give the regulator the power to “direct” newspapers on the size and positioning of apologies.
The Prime Minister was opposed to the “statutory underpinning” recommended by Lord Justice Leveson and supported by Labour and Lib Dems, which would enshrine the principles behind regulation of the press in legislation.
The compromise involves a minor amendment to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which will be voted on in the House of Lords this afternoon.
The new clause does not explicitly refer to press regulation or the media or even to the royal charter.
Instead, it states that no royal charter relating to an industry issued after March 1 this year may be changed unless the terms which it sets out for its own amendment have been met.
In effect, this enshrines in law the safeguard written into the charter that future governments may not alter its terms – either to water down regulation or to clamp down on the press – unless they can secure a “super-majority” of two-thirds of both the Houses of Commons and Lords.
Tony Jaffa, head of the editorial and regulatory media team of Westcountry law firm Foot Anstey, said: “The deal agreed between the three main political parties on the surface appears to avoid statutory control of the Press, which is what publishers called for. But we have to be watchful that the proposal is not as benign as presented.
“Even with a two-thirds majority in both Houses needed to change a royal charter, it risks handing control to politicians. And anything that risks 300 years of Press freedom that is hatched at 2.30am is at best questionable, at worst downright dangerous.”
All three party leaders were this afternoon claiming victory
The Prime Minister insisted the agreement avoids the need for a law to control newspapers, telling reporters: “It’s not statutory underpinning. What it is is simply a clause that says politicians can’t fiddle with this so it takes it further away from politicians, which is actually, I think, a sensible step.”
But his comment appeared to be at odds with the view of the new arrangements taken by Labour and Lib Dems, who had threatened to combine to defeat Mr Cameron in the Commons this evening if a cross-party deal was not reached.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said that a free press “has nothing to fear from what has been agreed”.
The Labour leader said: “What we have agreed is essentially the royal charter that Nick Clegg and I published on Friday. It will be underpinned by statute. Why is that important? Because it stops ministers or the press meddling with it, watering it down in the future.
“It will be a regulator, a system of complaints where the regulator has teeth so they can direct apologies if wrong is done and it is independent of the press, which is so important because for too long we have had a system where the press have been marking their own homework.”
He added: “People who revealed MPs’ expenses, people who revealed phone hacking have nothing to fear from what has been agreed.
“I think a free press has nothing to fear from what has been agreed. This is about a press that doesn’t abuse its own power and, if that power is abused, victims have a right to redress because, so often in the past when things went wrong – take the case of the McCanns – they felt they had nobody to turn to.”
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said the plan achieved what he had hoped for when he published joint proposals with Mr Miliband.
“In effect what we have done is adopt the so-called ‘royal charter plus’ in full, which we published last Friday and it is underpinned by legislation – both to install a real system of costs and damages and crucially to make sure that future governments can’t mess around with the Royal Charter in a way that everyone had concerns (about),” said the Deputy Prime Minister.