Friday, November 1, 2013

Approved behind closed doors, curbs that end three centuries of Press freedom

A secretive committee of four ministers yesterday approved a Royal Charter to regulate the Press, provoking claims that politicians are undermining 300 years of freedom of speech.

The Privy Council, which advises the Queen, rubber-stamped the plans after newspapers lost two last ditch legal bids to halt the process.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg chaired a meeting at Buckingham Palace at which Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary Maria Miller and Liberal Democrat peer Lord McNally were also present.

The Queen was then obliged to grant the Royal Charter.

It grants politicians the right to meddle in Press regulation for the first time since the licensing of newspapers was abolished in 1695.

The plans were drawn up by all three main parties in late night negotiations over pizza with the Hacked Off pressure group. It is the first time in British history that a Royal Charter has been imposed upon an industry without its consent – a move that has provoked criticism that the Queen has become embroiled in political controversy.

On a day of high drama, four newspaper and magazine industry bodies went to the High Court to seek an injunction to prevent the Privy Council proceeding.

But it was only when the hearing was under way that lawyers for the newspapers realised that, without warning the papers, the judges had also decided to rule on a separate application for judicial review of the Privy Council’s ‘unfair, irrational and unlawful’ decision not to approve a rival Royal Charter drawn up by the newspapers.

Lord Justice Richards, sitting with Mr Justice Sales, rejected the application for judicial review and for an injunction.

The two judges retired to consider their verdict for only 15 minutes before returning with a ruling that ran to around 3,000 words – strongly suggesting it had been prepared in advance.

In their judgment, they said of the Privy Council’s rejection of the industry charter, ‘none of it can have come as surprise to anyone’.

Addressing the argument that the Privy Council had acted unfairly by refusing to tell the newspaper industry the criteria being used to make their decision, they said they could not see ‘any realistic possibility that a different procedure might have led to a different outcome.’

A senior industry figure said: ‘If that’s the case why did the Privy Council spend more than five months considering our charter? Or was the whole process just a sham?’

Newspaper groups will now file a separate case at the Court of Appeal over their calls for judicial review of the Privy Council’s decisions both to reject their Royal Charter and approve the politicians’ version.

They said last night: ‘We are deeply disappointed with this decision, which denies the newspaper and magazine industry the right properly to make their case that the Privy Council’s decision to reject their charter was unfair and unlawful.

‘This is a vital constitutional issue and we will be taking our case for judicial review – of the Privy Council’s decisions on both the industry charter and the cross-party charter – to the Court of Appeal.’

'Extraordinarily depressing'

Both rival Royal Charters would create a ‘recognition panel’ to oversee an independent regulator with powers to impose fines of up to £1million on newspapers for wrongdoing.

But while the newspaper industry’s version of the charter would require industry-wide approval for any changes, the politicians’ version could only be changed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and the approval of the recognition board, which has no Press representation.

Despite being threatened with penal damages and costs if they do not sign up, not a single newspaper or magazine has said it will join a regulator operating under the Government’s Royal Charter.

Roger Alton, executive editor of The Times, warned that the consequences could be far reaching.

‘It’s the end of 300 years of Press freedom if you’ve got politicians deciding to judge how stiff the standards of regulation are and that’s what will happen,’ he said. Mr Alton said ‘it could potentially be the difference between a free country and a non-free country’, adding that it was ‘inconceivable’ that such a thing would happen in America.

‘The idea that a deal stitched up between a few politicians over pizzas and a handful of lobbyists from Hacked Off, which is essentially an anti-newspaper group, is the thing that now controls the Press, which is one of the most vital safeguards in our democracy, I find extraordinarily depressing, very sad. It will be resisted.’

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: ‘It is a pity the Queen has been brought into controversy. Royal Charters are usually granted to those who ask for one – not forced upon an industry or group that doesn’t want it.’

Culture Department sources rejected claims that the Queen should not have been embroiled in the row.

‘The Government has already debated what was presented to the Privy Council; and the Queen was asked to formally approve it,’ a senior source said. ‘Under a constitutional monarchy, the Queen acts on the advice of her government. The Privy Council has granted the cross-party Royal Charter. It is not for the Queen to decide on its merits.’

Mr Clegg rejected claims that politicians would muzzle the Press. ‘The reason why politicians of all shades congregated in favour of a cross-party charter is that this whole system is designed to protect rather than undermine the continued right of the Press to regulate itself,’ he said.

Culture Secretary Mrs Miller said a charter was ‘the best way to resist full statutory regulation’ of the Press. ‘The decisions today mean that we can move forward with that and we will continue to work with the industry to make sure that this is a success,’ she added.


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