If all the hot air that has been expended on the future of press regulation could somehow be collected, we would no longer have an energy problem. That said, there is no doubt that the debate has been important, nay historic. There has been, though, an element of hysteria attached to the proceedings, beginning with the run-up to the Leveson Inquiry, the judicial hearings themselves, publication of the Leveson report and then, ever since, attempts to implement a new framework that complies with the judge’s recommendations.
Which is why we give our readers the opportunity today to read in full the Royal Charter on the proposed system. We publish the charter without omission with only a minimum of explanation.
Ever since it was founded, The Independent has believed in giving its readers the facts and letting them judge for themselves. Let us be clear: publication does not mean we endorse the Royal Charter. But it does indicate that this is not a document to be dismissed out of hand, as others have dismissed it.
We appreciate the intense efforts by its proposers – the three main political parties – to steer a course that balances democratic hegemony with press freedom. Indeed, such has been the level of vitriol heaped upon the Royal Charter that it is forgotten that it was originally proposed by the Prime Minister to an anxious press as a way of avoiding the need for parliamentary oversight of its industry.
Faced with the prospect of some sort of “press law”, the newspapers were presented with an alternative by David Cameron and his Policy Minister, Oliver Letwin. It was written into the Royal Charter proposal that the new regulatory regime could be changed only by a two-thirds majority of both Houses of Parliament.The likelihood of such a proportion ever being achieved was thought to be negligible. That might have been true if applied to any other walk of life, but relations between the press and politicians being what they are, the chances of two-thirds of MPs and peers voting to punish journalists did not seem that remote.
Which is why a last-minute amendment proposed by the Culture and Media Secretary, Maria Miller, that a two-thirds majority of the “Recognition Panel”, the body that oversees the new press regulator, would also be required, could only be positive. Such a change would be a safeguard against political interference. But even that might not be enough: some critics are implacably opposed to Parliament having any say in how the press is regulated.
Others highlight, too, the arcane nature of the Privy Council, which meets tomorrow to agree the new scheme. The Council meets in secret and its affairs are kept deliberately opaque. It seems absurd that decision-making so in need of being transparent should in the end be subject to such an arcane, old-fashioned process.
While the Royal Charter has been wending its way round the recesses of Whitehall, the larger newspaper groups have got on and made progress in forming the industry’s own self-regulator, a replacement for the existing but no longer fit-for-purpose Press Complaints Commission.
Called the Independent Press Standards Organisation, or Ipso, it is a significant improvement on its predecessor; but its its constitution is not perfect either.
Which will we end up with: the Royal Charter or Ipso? It is too early to tell. For now, the battle lines are firmly drawn. But there is one certainty: the rules governing the press will be far tougher than before. There is no going back – Lord Justice Leveson has seen to that.