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 WHAT A ROYAL SCREW-UP!

It is literally a Royal screw-up! We are to have a Royal Charter setting up a watchdog to oversee an independent regulator who will oversee the press.

Gilbert & Sullivan would have put that to music.

Instead of an Act of Parliament we will have a Royal Charter.

This is the same procedure that was used to set up Cambridge University in 1231 and the British East India Company in 1600. One of the most recent was to the Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity in 2011.

True, the BBC operates under a Royal Charter but that can be a source of weakness. A Royal charter can be agreed by privy councilors and approved by the Queen as Tony Blair showed with his interference with the BBC’s governance after the Iraq war.

The new charter will establish a “Recognition Panel” responsible for monitoring an independent press regulator.  The charter will be supported by a clause inserted into legislation insisting that only a substantial majority in Parliament can change it.

So why not just have an Act of Parliament?

I look forward to William Hague trying to lecture Vladimir Putin on press freedom. “No, Mr Putin. A Royal charter is not like a presidential decree at all, even though it sounds like one.”

And after all the hot air expended over the principle that press regulation should not have statutory underpinning, we get an archaic form of statutory underpinning.

It’s as if putting red velvet on handcuffs stops them being handcuffs. Yes, they are used in different circumstances and the wearer consents to their use but they’re still restraints.

For the last year press, politicians and police have been on trial at the court of Lord Leveson and rightly so. But everyone has connived to cover up the one culprit which has not been named and shamed: our legal system.

Almost all of the victims of press wrongdoing were prevented from taking effective action by the ridiculous cost of the law.

This was well-illustrated by the Leveson Inquiry itself. “Counsel to the Inquiry” consisted of Robert Jay, QC, and barristers David Barr and Carine Patry Hoskins. Then they needed an “Additional Counsel to the Inquiry for Module 2”, Lucinda Boon.

Between July 2011 and October 2012 they cost £1,353,900

In most trades you would expect to be able to buy the best for that kind of money. Yet they needed the assistance of four more barristers who cost £305,600.

The law is expensive because lawyers still operate a self-serving closed shop. The introduction of paralegals in some cases simply meant clients being charged lawyers’ fees for work done by non-lawyers.

Other lawyers – some of them MPs and peers, but others Parliamentary draughtsmen – write complex laws in an unnecessarily complicated way. Have you ever read an Act of Parliament? It is as if the word processor had never been invented.

The clause supporting the new Royal Charter will be included in an existing piece of Government legislation. Why not print off a short Act of Parliament with a name that tells us what it is about?

Yet we have Lord Leveson – salary around £200,000 – lecturing us about providing a free arbitration service.

We would not need additional regulators if the law and lawyers did their jobs more effectively – and a lot more cost-effectively.


Picture (c) 123RF Stock Photos 

 

HOW DO YOU TEACH A LESSON LIKE LEVESON?

Today (Friday, November 30) sees the first law course in the UK for journalists to include the Leveson Report. We always knew it would be far-reaching and today it is reaching Shetland.

I am here to deliver the latest round of my Real Law for Journalists course. It has already been delivered across Scotland, including Shetland before, and in England.

Its title is due to the fact that, although I graduated in law and I teach media law at Stirling, Strathclyde and Westminster, it is taught from the journalist's perspective and influenced by my 30 years as a journalist.

I can, for example, tell journalists what they should do when you have three pages on a murder investigation in your paper and someone is suddenly arrested late at night. I do not use the lawyer's trick of saying: "On the one hand…; on the other hand; but it's up to you."

The course is continually updated and it has already been revamped to include predictions of what Leveson would recommend. Now, at last, we know what he has recommended.

We do not know, however, what is going to be done about it. David Cameron has already come out against Lord Leveson's key recommendation of the statutory underpinning of a new regulator.

His rallying cry of 300 years of press freedom evokes images of brave independent newsletters standing up to monarchs and their ministers rather than large corporations like News International and Associated Newspapers.

Culture Secretary Maria Miller told Channel 4 News she intends to introduce a Bill to show how difficult legislation would be… a novel piece of logic.

UK regulation now looks set to follow one of two routes: that proposed by Leveson and that proposed by Lord Hunt, where newspaper publishers sign contracts agreeing to abide by a self-regulatory system.

Neither is perfect, not least in failing to produce a realistic solution to the Richard Desmond problem. Lord Hunt can't make him sign up and Lord Leveson introduces the prospect of Ofcom as the default regulator fining the Express for lack of impartiality.

However, before editors try to stick their heads in the sand, let them remember what happened when they refused to engage with the idea of privacy legislation. A wrong could not go unremedied forever and judges stepped in where editors and politicians feared to tread.

The content of regulation has barely been touched on, but the Editors' Code of Practice itself has not been greatly criticised - except for the fact that the Press Complaints Commission didn't bother to enforce it properly.

The main problem with it is its catch-all definition of the public interest which is clearly at odds with the courts' definition, especially as shown in the Max Mosley case.

Meanwhile Alex Salmond has called for a media advisory panel led by a judge to explore a Scottish solution, which may or may not be influenced by the experience of the Press Council of Ireland.                                                             

If Scotland shows an ability to act as well as it talks, it might just show the rest of the UK a way forward.

 


 

LEVESON - THE HYSTERIA BEFORE THE STORM

THIS time next week, we could all be on our way to being shackled by draconian Press legislation. That's the picture that's been recently painted by the Daily Mail and The Sun.

Until Thursday, the only question for some was what day Lord Leveson would issue his report on Press standards.

It's going to be Thursday, and it will be interesting to see the Press coverage during the build-up to the report's publication. Some have already shown their hand.

The Daily Mail last week expended 11 pages on a 'special investigation' into a seeming plot to muzzle the popular Press.

Meanwhile, The Sun was only a little more restrained. Statutory regulation would mean Sun readers would be able to read only what undefined 'officials' allowed them to. Would Page 3 nipples ever be safe again?

Neither paper considered what led us to the present situation.

When many people realised some protection of privacy was necessary - look up the case of actor, Gorden Kaye in 1991, for example - Fleet Street fought it relentlessly and missed the chance to take part in drafting legislation, leaving judge-made decisions to fill the gap.

When the Human Rights Act was going through Parliament, the Press successfully campaigned for a clause stating that Article 10 - the right to free expression - would have precedence over Article 8 - the right to respect for personal and family life.

Judges, however, can be more sophisticated in their thinking. So Article 10 does not 'trump' Article 8: a balance is drawn between them. A story is not simply either in the public interest or not, but certain parts of the story may be in the public interest but not others.

So what is Lord Leveson likely to conclude?

After the decades-long failure of Press self-regulation, finally and fatally shown up by Richard Desmond's decision to take his Express and Star papers out of the Press Complaints Commission orbit, Lord Leveson will argue for a system underpinned by statute.

That could mean a number of things. Statute can be used to support a system of self-regulation which provides sanctions for breaches and closes escape routes for Desmond and others. Think of the model of the General Medical Council.

It can be used to provide a wholly statutory system like broadcasting regulators, Ofcom. Fleet Street lost one of its main arguments against an Ofcom-style system when it failed to break the Jimmy Savile story. That accolade went to the Ofcom-regulated ITV.

Statute can be used to provide Parliamentary oversight. A regulator could be compelled to deliver its annual report to Parliament and to answer questions on its performance before a Parliamentary committee.

One thing I do predict: Lord Leveson will not be content to see his report sit on a Government shelf for years, or to have his recommendations watered down. He will want to make a mark.

He will not accept having his time wasted on an inquiry the Government tries to ignore, and he will let Government and public know this.

Prime Minister, David Cameron, will find his room for a response restricted. This time next year, his friend, Rebekah Brooks, and former adviser, Andy Coulson, may well be on trial on charges arising from their News of the World activities.

If Cameron has not yet acted on the Leveson Report when NotW secrets spill out in court, the public will ask why.