The Labour Party claims it has a deal with the other major UK parties to publish a Royal Charter, to be backed by legislation, that would set tough new standards and oversight on journalism and the press in Great Britain. The prompt for action comes after the publication of the Leveson inquiry into the actions and ethics of the press following a series of scandals. Leveson proposed statutory changes, but balance them with enshrining into law the freedom of the press, and the government's duty to actively promote press freedom. The shift to the device of a Royal Charter was seen as a way to impose regulation and oversight without having to actually formally commit to the principal of a free press.
Press and free speech advocates were outraged. From tabloid The Sun:
As they bargained overnight in talks that ended at 2.30am, newspaper industry experts appealed to MPs not to shame Britain by throwing away 318 years of Press freedom.
Tim Luckhurst, Kent University’s Professor of Journalism, said: “Popular newspapers are bold defenders of the public interest. It protects our liberties and holds power to account. MPs should search their conscience and vote for freedom of expression unlimited by state intervention.”
Nick Pickles, director of civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, said of proposals to shackle newspapers: “MPs should reject these dangerous measures that would be seen around the world as Britain abandoning its free Press.”Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland, commented, "I’m very cautious about controlling the media, because it always leads to something bad - it always leads to misuse of power."
In a perversion of language, Prime Minister David Cameron claimed
“What we wanted to avoid and we have avoided is a press law,” he said. “Nowhere will it say what this body is, what it does, what it can’t do, what the press can and can’t do. That, quite rightly, is being kept out of parliament.”Instead, the Charter will create an "independent press regulator" that will create and enforce a strict code, including the ability to impose heavy fines and require front page "apologizes." And instead of transparent language and judicial oversight inherent in any statute, the "independent regulator" will be under the oversight of the Privy Council (i.e. not subject to public oversight). Sounds a lot like telling the press what it "can and can't do." Only without the protections for the press that the Leveson Inquiry report felt were critical to maintaining press freedom and independence.
In particular, the new regulator would draw up a code of behavior for journalists and the press, set up a bureaucratic authority to investigate complaints, adjudicate complaints, and levy fines and other punishments. Including telling the press what it must print and where to print it.
While the inquiry and later discussion focused on the print press, it seems the Charter proposal takes things a large step beyond.
Schedule 4, Point 1 of both the government and the opposition’s versions of the Royal Charter will bring blogs under the regulator’s control:What's most bewildering to me is that this is the one thing that can unite U.K.'s three largest political parties. They must really hate having to deal with a free, inquisitive, and at times argumentative press.
“relevant publisher” means a person (other than a broadcaster) who publishes in the United Kingdom: a. a newspaper or magazine containing news-related material, or b. a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a newspaper or magazine)”
Sources - Parties reach deal on UK press regulation, ft.com
European Human Rights Watchdog Criticizes. U.K. Press Regulation Proposals, The Hollywood Reporter
D-Day for Press Freedom, The Sun
Guido's Warning to Liberal & Progressive Bloggers: Royal Charter Aims for Tabloids and Guido, It'll Get You Too, Order-Order blog
For background on the Levenson Inquiry and Report,
Leveson - New Regulator Proposed, BBC.co.uk