After due consideration, we at The Spectator have decided our response to the proposed Royal Charter system of press regulation. Our answer is given on the cover of the new magazine (above). We fully supported David Cameron’s response to the Leveson Report and agreed with him that the press regulation needs a major overhaul. But, he said, this ought not to be done by politicians. The press was willing to implement the regulatory changes that Lord Justice Leveson wanted: up-front apologies, £1m damages, everything. Statute would not be necessary. The press would do it themselves, and did not need to be suborned by the politicians. Our ancient press freedom would be protected.
Instead, we have a dog’s breakfast of a Royal Charter which actually makes less sense the more you read it. This is what happens when politicians get together: each wants to proclaim victory, so the language is made vague enough for everyone to read whatever they want into it. It’s perhaps fitting that the Charter is written in archaic language: that’s how they spoke in the 1690s, the last time there was state regulation of the press in England. All together, it’s a recipe for disaster and future power grabs.
Even now No10 doesn’t seem to know if the Charter’s clauses involve, for example, regulating Twitter or not. The freedom (and proper regulation) of the press deserves a better and more workable solution than one cooked up at 2am in Ed Miliband’s office with a cabal of politicians in one room and Hacked Off in the other. You don’t need to understand the text of the Royal Charter to grasp its key point: this is a clear attempt for politicians to license the press. It’s a power grab.
But the press has a choice. It can sign up David Cameron’s peculiar Royal Charter press club, with its medieval dress code, or it can decline. I strongly suspect that newspapers will give their own ‘no’ to the Royal Charter – perhaps in a smaller font size –and then produce their own robust regulation with all the essential components of the Leveson deal. Press freedom is worth fighting for, and I suspect the newspapers will now fight.
Yes, there have been horrific abuses by the press. But this was already illegal: this is why so many journalists have been arrested and why so many will go to jail. No new laws are required. No political oversight is required. The Royal Charter would have done nothing to help the McCanns, Chris Jeffreys – or, indeed, Hugh Grant and Max Mosley. But it would help the ministers who want to speak softly to the press, while carrying a big stick. And anyone who thinks the loss of UK press freedom would not have any international effects should think how often Ireland is being cited as an example for our Press to accept political control.
Debating this on Ch4 News with George Eustace, Cameron’s ex-spin doctor, reminded me of a basic point – about what we’re all in this game for. The Spectator’s readers expect us to hold politicians to account, not dance to their tune. And that’s what we’ll keep doing. Hopefully under a new press regulatory system which will be the most robust in the Western world – and one set up by newspapers appalled by this attempt to bury England’s ancient press freedoms in so shallow a grave.
PS We’ve had plenty compliments on Twitter for the cover. It was designed in about ten seconds by Peter Robins, our brilliant production editor. Here’s a high-res version.
And here’s my debate with Eustace on Ch4 News:-