Royal Charter on Press Regulation: A False Dichotomy

By Joe Attwood

The authors of the Royal Charter on the Self-Regulation of the Press have come under a great deal of criticism in recent weeks, but if there is one thing that can be said of them it is that they have certainly read the Leveson Report.

The Royal Charter, a document containing the government’s plans for the creation of codified tools for press regulation, reads at times as though it had been written with the attitude of the well-meaning but naïve student who, having been asked to refer directly to the examination question in his answer, mistakenly believes that repeatedly quoting lines from the question will in itself gain him credit.

In an apparent effort to appease a purported majority of the British public, the authors have coated the Charter in phrases that appear regularly in Lord Justice Leveson’s report, including routine assurances that the new regulatory body will conduct itself in a ‘genuinely open, transparent, and independent way’ and will be ‘independent of the industry and government’. Neglecting to define key terms (such as ‘open’ and ‘transparent’) is another characteristic that both the Report and the Charter have in common with the underprepared exam student. The Charter’s bewilderingly orotund language is perhaps the government’s best and only defence against criticism of its inadequate substance.

That the Royal Charter is badly written in both style and content is not a surprise. It was always unlikely that the government’s post-Leveson plans would be published to rapturous applause and unanimous support. Assuming that its readers are eventually able to chip their way through the document’s dense legalese to find a nugget of meaning, there are undoubtedly a great many things over which disagreement can be had. The key political debate currently being fought pits the parties who believe in the need for a press regulation system with a ‘statutory underpinning’ against those parties who argue that such a system must, if it is to ensure that government does not influence the content of British newspapers, have no basis in statute. Both sides have characterised their opponents’ positions as either failing to attach sufficient importance to the principle of press freedom, or failing to spring compassionately to the defence of the phone-hacking victims.

As is often the case with legislatures dominated by a small number of large political parties, it is rare that every available solution to any given issue receives the parliamentary or public attention it deserves. Since the publication of the Leveson Report, the debate has been driven by the three main political parties’ disagreements over the specifics of the regulatory system that should be established in response to the diabolical crimes committed by a handful of journalists. Consequently, a false dichotomy has been created that presents any viable solution as a choice between regulation with a statutory foundation and regulation without it. But in the face of a seemingly strong backlash against the print media by a revolted British public, there is scarcely a party willing to air the dissenter’s opinion: a new regulatory body is completely unnecessary.

The creation of a new system of regulation-by-charter has largely been a product of pressure applied by public outrage and its cheerleader, prominent pro-regulation lobby group Hacked Off, which claims to speak for 78 per cent of British voters (This statistic is based on an online poll that consulted only 2,846 individuals). Naturally, there is no one on any side of the debate who does not agree that the crimes committed by a very few journalists were deplorable. The systematically overlooked fact remains that these were criminal actions, whose prohibition is, by definition, already enshrined in statute. To argue that a further body is needed to make sure that violated laws, such as those that forbid the interception of communications, are not broken in the future is as absurd as claiming the need for the establishment of a body to regulate the commission of crimes of theft, which continue to happen even though they are illegal. It is a nonsense idea that essentially argues the case for making acting illegally an illegal activity.

After careful examination it is difficult to determine precisely what is motivating Hacked Off and its followers in their battle for new regulation. Taking into account that the pro-regulation lobby is staffed in the main by victims of journalistic abuse, it might be said that the lobby is seeking retribution against a press industry that they see as being morally out of control. Yet, if punishment for crimes committed is truly what is being sought, the best possible solution must be to arrest the journalists who, by hacking phones, intercepting communications or bribing officials, have committed crimes, and allow a judge to apply an appropriate penalty after proper adjudication. Ignoring the fact that this legal avenue remains available would indicate that Hacked Off and its supporters regard the judicial system as insufficiently punitive or inadequate. This being the case, they should be pressuring to see changes in British criminal procedure rather than advocating tighter state control of the British press. 

Campaigners for press regulation have also frequently claimed that a new system is necessary to ensure that similarly horrific crimes will not be committed by elements in the print media in the future. This idea is particularly odd when one considers that there is nothing in the Royal Charter that would have deterred the terrible crimes that were perpetrated by members of the press, had they been in place beforehand. Changes to the Crime and Courts Bill proposed by the Charter will impose punitive fines on publications whose employees have successful claims brought against them in the future. It is fundamentally an attempt to apply a deterrent: journalists who behave immorally or illegally do so at the risk of bringing substantial monetary fines down upon the heads of their employers. Yet journalists who hacked phones before the publication of the Charter ran the extraordinary personal risk of arrest and imprisonment when committing their crimes, a risk considerably greater than that of incurring a fine. It is surely ridiculous to expect such morally bankrupt individuals as those who would abuse murder victims and their families to be discouraged by the possibility that a fine might be imposed, a fine that they would not personally be liable to pay. It is unclear why such faith is placed in the Charter’s ability to prevent crimes of this nature when a combination of existing law, the journalistic code of ethics, and human decency proved insufficient at the time.

Aside from having been proposed as a solution to a nonexistent problem, the Royal Charter and the way in which it appeared should certainly give British democracy and press freedom cause for concern. Hacked Off and the three main political parties are quick to remind doubters that the new system calls simply and safely for the press industry to regulate itself. Yet, and in a spectacular contradiction in terms, the agreement sees the freedom to self-regulate handed down to the print media by ministers, a solitary opposition party, and a gaggle of lobbyists, with a state-sponsored buttress to boot; a monarch might just as nonsensically award her subjects the right to be free. The reality that representatives of the press were not involved when the deal was eventually sealed makes these claims even harder to validate.

Obviating the false dichotomy and exploring this third avenue in the press regulation debate has sadly been something that only fringe politicians such as UKIP’s Nigel Farage, and a limited number of public figures, including Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, have suggested. The three main political parties are, as ever, left swirling back and forth in the capricious eddies of public opinion, bound by the putative will of the majority, and immune to the pursuit of the common sense solution. The debate will close before it has properly begun.


Joe Attwood is a student at King's College London, interested in international security, defence and politics issues, particularly focused on US foreign and domestic policy. 


18 April 2013