Today I wrote to Oliver Letwin MP expressing concerns about the Conservatives’ plans for a Royal Charter on press regulation, published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. You can read the full text of my letter below.
Today you have published your Royal Charter, the Conservative Party’s contribution to cross-party talks on the Leveson Report.
We have substantive concerns that the Royal Charter as drafted fails to comply with the recommendations that the Leveson Report makes. At the heart of Leveson’s proposals was that a new system should be independent of politicians and independent of the press.
The draft Royal Charter fails this test in two particular respects.
Firstly, there is nothing to stop the Privy Council, which consists of ministers, from amending the Charter at any time and thereby changing the terms of the recognition and regulatory framework.
Secondly, Leveson recommended that, in the event that the recognition body was not Ofcom, the appointment process for the recognition body should be independent of the press. The process set out in the draft Royal Charter fails in that respect because of the four people to carry out the appointment process, one is to represent the interests of the press.
Leveson proposed a cross-party agreement on a system that is durable and that works. I believe it to be the case that there is a strong view across all parties and in both Houses in Parliament that Leveson must be implemented in full. That was shown by the debate and vote in the House of Lords on amendments to the Defamation Bill.
I don’t believe it would be right to proceed with a proposal which offers less than the independence and stability recommended by Leveson.
This letter sets out in detail five key issues where we have serious concerns, spells out why we believe they don’t comply with Leveson’s recommendations and proposes what we think would make them Leveson-compliant.
Amendment of the Charter
Leveson recommends that any recognition body should be independent of government and the press (K, 7, 6.14).
The draft Royal Charter sets up a Recognition Panel which judges whether the self-regulatory body matches Leveson’s criteria. But the structure of a system created by Royal Charter could be changed at any time by ministers through the Privy Council. The whole system is subject to ministers and could make ministers vulnerable to press influence. Ministers of their own volition, or under pressure from the press, could therefore interfere with the Recognition Panel which is against Leveson’s proposals. The Royal Charter would be open to interference by ministers and by the press.
The draft Royal Charter draft provides for amendment only to be with the agreement of all three party leaders and a resolution by both houses with a two-thirds majority. But the Privy Council cannot be bound by a Royal Charter – it is the Privy Council that is in control of Royal Charter bodies.
For it to be Leveson-compliant, we propose that the way to protect the system from interference by ministers would be clauses in statute preventing ministers from amending the Royal Charter through the Privy Council and allowing changes only with the approval of a resolution in both Houses by two-thirds majority. You drafted such clauses and produced them in cross-party talks. We think these must be taken forward if there is to be a Royal Charter.
The appointment of the Recognition Panel
Lord Justice Leveson recommends (K, 7, 6.22) that if the recogniser is to be other than Ofcom, ‘He or she would have to be appointed by another process independent of the press’.
But in the draft Royal Charter, the proposal to appoint the first board of the Recognition Panel is that the Royal Charter names Lord (Simon) Brown and requires him to appoint three other members to an Appointments Committee, one of whom ‘must represent the interests of relevant publishers’. Your process therefore includes someone who is not independent of the press.
For it to be Leveson-compliant, the Charter must be amended to provide for all appointments to the initial Appointments Committee to be independent of the press.
Leveson sets out in some detail and great specificity the recognition criteria by which the recognition body should judge the regulator.
We see no reason to depart in any respect from the recognition criteria thought through so carefully by Lord Justice Leveson, and to be compliant with Leveson the recognition criteria in the draft Royal Charter should be amended so they reflect Leveson’s recommendations precisely. For example, Leveson recommended that arbitration should be ‘free for complainants to use’, while your Royal Charter says it should be ‘inexpensive’ for complainants. The Royal Charter should follow Leveson.
Coverage of significant news publishers
Lord Justice Leveson recommends (recommendation 23) that ‘A new system of regulation should not be considered sufficiently effective if it does not cover all significant news publishers’.
But the draft Royal Charter makes no reference to this.
For it to be Leveson-compliant, the Charter must be amended to include it.
Recommendations 34 to 47
Lord Justice Leveson recommends that recommendations 34 to 47 – on internal governance, protecting the public, the public interest and protecting journalists – are points that the self-regulatory body should, or should consider, meeting.
The draft Royal Charter says that the Recognition Panel should not refuse to recognise a body if it fails to comply with recommendations 34 to 47 of the Leveson Report.
For it to be Leveson-compliant, the Charter should be amended such that those recommendations which Lord Justice Leveson says ‘should’ happen – 37, 39, 40, 41, 42 and 46 – be included as recognition criteria, and that in the cases of the others, where the regulator ‘should consider’ a provision, that the regulator should submit to the recogniser reasons for not doing so.
We expect these issues to be the basis of our discussions at cross-party talks on Thursday. We are sending you this letter in good time to ensure you are fully prepared to discuss them.
These are our initial concerns on the draft Royal Charter published today, but if on further consideration we have others we will also send them to you before Thursday.
We would also expect to discuss and agree on Thursday a timetable for our discussions to be brought to a conclusion – we suggest talks conclude on 21 February.
The Leveson Report was published on 29 November. We need to make progress on implementing its recommendations.