Two competing proposals on the structure of a press regulatory body for the United Kingdom — one by newspaper proprietors and the other by a cross-party parliamentary group — are up for scrutiny before the Queen’s Privy Council. Each is seeking a royal charter for the establishment of its own preferred model of a press regulator. The Privy Council is to give its decision in respect of the newspaper industry version on Wednesday.
It has been a long-drawn out and high-stakes battle between two strong groups. On the one hand is the press lobby that is absolutely against conceding any part of its turf to government oversight. On the other is an alliance between press-aggrieved citizens and the three major political parties.
The search for an independent press regulator — or self-regulator, as the newspaper lobby describes the role — started after the recommendations of the Lord Justice Leveson Inquiry were made public. The Leveson inquiry was set up by Prime Minister David Cameron in July 2011 after a sordid scandal over phone-hacking by reporters at the (now-defunct) News of the World surfaced. Lord Justice Leveson was asked to look into the “culture, practices and ethics” of the press, its relationship with politicians and the police; why the regulatory regime failed; and whether previous instances of media misconduct were acted upon.
In his recommendations Lord Justice Leveson upheld the principle of self-regulation rather than external regulation for newspapers. However, he called upon the industry to set up a new press standards body to be underpinned by legislation to give it heft. He believed that such a scheme would give the public confidence in the press, and the press confidence in its freedom.
The Leveson report received a mixed response from newspapers — reflection and soul-searching by the more serious, brazen defence of their practices by others. However, the press as a whole opposed an external oversight regime that legislation would necessarily bring in. It continues to do so.
Thus emerged the compromise of setting up a regulatory body through a Royal Charter proposed by the Privy Council to the Queen. The idea was mooted by Mr. Cameron in February 2013 as a way to take the sting out of Leveson’s proposal for statutory underpinning. In the case of a Royal Charter, the only legislation involved is a clause which states that such a body can be disbanded only by a two-thirds vote in Parliament.
In March, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats signalled their support for the Prime Minister’s scheme. It was at this point that the Press Standards Board of Finance (which finances the current Press Complaints Commission) decided to submit a separate proposal to the Privy Council for an Independent Press Standards Organisation.
“The Privy Council is expected to decide on the political parties’ version as soon as it has rejected the industry’s proposal,” Gavin Millar QC, an expert on media and the law, told The Hindu. “The PC can reject both as not appropriate to recommend to the Queen. It could ask the two sides to agree to a [third] scheme, but given their present entrenched positions, it is unlikely that they would be able to do so. The big sticking point is the requirement for a binding arbitrations scheme for complainants,” Mr. Millar said.
Around 95 per cent of press bodies are signed up to join the IPSO, expected to be in place by early 2014.
“The political parties’ scheme will presumably be set up in the same sort of timeframe but it is not clear which bodies, if any, will apply to be Regulator under this scheme,” said Mr. Millar.