The progress towards a workable system for press reform is in a state of uncertainty, and observers have been left confused about where things stand. Dr Gordon Ramsay of the Media Standards Trust sorts through the complexities of the recent ‘concessions’ made as part of the press’ own royal charter scheme, and argues that they may not be as meaningful as reports suggest.
The negotiations around the creation of a new regulatory system for the press in the wake of the Leveson Report long ago became absurdly complicated. The Guardian’s comparison of the issue with the Schleswig-Holstein Question is appropriate: few people, if any, have had the time or knowledge to keep pace with every one of the twists and turns, from learning the functions of the Privy Council, to the application of the Companies Act to bloggers, via the applicability of exemplary damages in Human Rights law (I won’t pretend to be one of them). The submission of a rival Royal Charter by the Press Standards Board of Finance (PressBoF) adds a whole new dimension to the confusion, as discussed on this blog.
The uncertainty is not helped when the press fails to report accurately on the issues, and the latest significant development – that the supporters of the PressBoF Charter have offered a significant concession by removing an industry veto on appointments to the Board of a new self-regulator – was reported in two newspapers currently hesitating from backing the PressBoF Charter, the Guardian and the Independent (as well as being covered extensively in the newspapers openly backing the Charter).
There are two problems, however. The first, that initially appears more important, is that the veto simply doesn’t exist in the PressBoF Charter. Instead, it is – we are told – in the Articles of Association (never made public), and so we remain unsure whether the move from ‘qualified-majority voting’ to ‘consensus’ decision-making will in practice ensure that a co-ordinated bloc could not dominate the process.
The second problem renders the first almost completely irrelevant. The concession of the ‘veto’ is an acknowledgement that a perceived lack of independence from the industry is a shortcoming of the PressBoF Charter. However, the structure of this Royal Charter is such that industry dominance – specifically the dominance of PressBoF and its rebranded replacement, the Industry Funding Body (IFB) – is so great that a slight adjustment of the appointments process to one component of the system barely registers. The lack of the veto makes no difference when industry control of the new system is achieved by other means.
Before addressing these, however, it is worth looking more closely at PressBoF itself. PressBoF currently raises the levy on members of the PCC in order to fund the self-regulatory body. It does this through liaising with the various industry representation bodies, whose representatives make up the Board alongside delegates from those newspaper groups who launched the PressBoF Charter.
These industry bodies are: the Newspaper Publishers Association (NPA) (from where PressBoF’s Chair, Lord Guy Black of the Telegraph Media Group, is drawn) and the Newspaper Society (NS), which represents local and regional papers, alongside the Scottish Newspaper Society (SNS) and the PPA (representing magazines). PressBoF also shares a director, David Newell, with both the NPA and the NS (according to information on Companies House). The NPA has no web presence beyond this rudimentary site, and PressBoF and Scottish Newspaper Society (SNS) appear to have no independent web presence whatsoever. The industry bodies have been instrumental in leading industry negotiations on press reform, post-Leveson. David Newell has been particularly vocal recently in lobbying on the virtues of the PressBoF Charter.
However, the Charter proposed by PressBoF specifies (Schedule 4, Para 2(j)) that PressBoF itself will be replaced by the IFB, which will be “the body established by the newspaper and magazine industry to collect and provide funding for the independent self-regulation of the press”.
In lieu of any more information, it would appear that the IFB will be constituted as set out in Lord Black’s First (Para 15) and Fourth (Paras 20 & 21) Witness Statements to the Leveson Inquiry, that the previous structure will largely continue.
In his report, Lord Justice Leveson singled out PressBoF as a key component of the PCC’s ‘profound lack of any fundamental or meaningful independence from the industry’, by exerting actual and de facto budgetary control over the regulator and participating in key appointments processes (Volume IV, Part J, pp1520-1522). Elsewhere, he claimed that he saw “no need for such a body to exist at all” (Volume IV, Part K, pp1761-1762).
So, taking at face value the concession of the veto offered by the industry, how much control over the regulatory system does PressBoF exert in its own Charter?
- The Charter itself is granted to PressBoF, and the current members of PressBoF will make up the initial recognition panel (Petition, Preamble, and Article 1 of the PressBoF Charter). The recognition panel will subsequently be replaced, but a “representative of the press” agreed with PressBoF/IFB will sit on the appointments panel (Schedule 1, Para 2.3).
- PressBoF/IFB will retain year-to-year funding of the recognition panel, rather than funding being on a longer-term basis as Leveson recommended (Article 11). This maintains the unspoken obligation to the funding body that Leveson singled out as a severe problem with the previous system and sought to replace with four or five year funding periods agreed in advance.
- Contracts for members of the recognition panel are far less secure than Leveson specified, being reduced from 5 years to 2 years, and they can be terminated unilaterally by the Chair of the panel (Schedule 1, Paras 5 & 6).
- The Leveson recommendation that investigations carried out by the self-regulator should be financed by a ring-fenced fund has been removed from the PressBoF Charter. Without more information, it can be assumed that this fund is now optional, if it exists at all. In that case, investigations will be dependent on agreement by the funding body for the self-regulator, which could be PressBoF/IFB according to Schedule 3, Para 1.
- The specification that investigations should be ‘simple and credible’ has also been removed (Schedule 3, Para 18), allowing for the convoluted investigations process with scope for multiple representations on the part of newspapers proposed by Lord Black and rejected by Leveson (Volume IV, Part K, p1766). The self-regulator would, it must be stressed, only be able to levy the much-vaunted £1,000,000 fines (or any fines) after a successful investigation.
- Finally, PressBoF/IFB will have a veto over amendments to the Charter (Article 9.2) and a veto on dissolution to the Charter (Article 10.2). In effect, the ‘triple lock’ that supporters claim to be a protection against political interference is in fact a means of ensuring the influence of PressBoF/IFB in press regulation in perpetuity.
So, far from being a noble concession to opponents and an attempt to reopen negotiations on a cross-party Charter that is backed by public opinion and the will of Parliament, the loss of a veto (if it ever existed) on appointments to the Board of the self-regulator appears somewhat insignificant in the face of the proposed influence of the industry throughout the structure of the PressBoF charter.