Leech: The real winners are the innocent victims of press mistreatment.


I add my congratulations to the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. I am delighted that we have reached the position where there is agreement between the three main parties on a royal charter, backed up perhaps by just a small bit of legislation to ensure independence and to avoid political interference by future Governments.

The Liberal Democrats have said from the outset that we support a strong and independent press regulator, free from political interference, that would protect the innocent victims of media abuse. What has been agreed over the last couple of days achieves that: the press remains free from political interference and able robustly to challenge politicians and expose wrongdoing, including wrongdoing by politicians. At the same time, however,

those innocent victims of press abuse will have a robust regulator to hold the press to account when they have got it wrong.

I have already gone on record as saying that, in my view, the Prime Minister got it wrong when he decided to pull the Conservatives out of the all-party talks. Significant progress had been made, with both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party giving ground on the royal charter and with only a few areas of disagreement remaining—in relation to an industry veto on membership of the regulator, changes in the code of conduct, the nature of apologies, third-party complaints, and political interference with the royal charter. I pay tribute to the Prime Minister for returning to the talks, and I am pleased that the party leaders were able to reach an agreement.

We had argued that the press should not have an industry veto over members of the regulator, while the Conservative position had been that any industry representative on the appointments panel should be able to veto any nominee for the board of the regulator about whose impartiality that representative was concerned. Schedule 3 of the agreed royal charter ensures that there will be no industry veto. That change was essential if the regulator was to have real power over the press, and I welcome the concession that it represents.

We proposed that the regulator, not the press, should have the final say on changes in the code of conduct. The Conservatives proposed that the press should be able to recommend changes in the code, and that the regulator should be obliged to accept them. That, too, would have limited the real power of the regulator. Schedule 3 of the charter states that the code

“must be approved by the Board or remitted to the Code Committee with reasons.”

The original draft stated:

“The standards code must ultimately be adopted by the Board”.

That is another welcome concession.

All too often, victims have received apologies that have been hidden between other stories rather than given the prominence accorded to the original, offending stories. A number of Members have mentioned that. We propose that the regulator should be able to able direct newspaper apologies when mistakes are made. The original draft charter stated that the regulator should be able to tell a newspaper to apologise, but should have no say over the manner of that apology. It seems obvious to me that a regulator of the press should be able to influence the manner of any necessary apologies to bodies within its remit, so I am pleased to note that schedule 3 of the charter states that the regulator will “direct”, not “require”, remedial action and apologies.

We proposed that the regulator should have maximum discretion when deciding whether to accept complaints from third parties. The Conservatives proposed that the regulator should accept such complaints only when there had been a “serious” breach of the rules, and when there was “significant” public interest. In schedule 3(11) the word “substantial”, which was used in the original charter, has been eliminated, which gives the regulator discretion to decide whether a third-party complaint is appropriate.

In relation to the question of political interference, we argued that there should be a clause in legislation making it much more difficult for future Governments to amend or abolish the royal charter. Under the agreement that has been reached, the Government will insert a clause in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill in the House of Lords, which will prevent future Governments from amending or abolishing the royal charter without consulting Parliament. That is fundamental to the future of press regulation, protecting the press from the clutches of future Governments while also ensuring that the regulator cannot be watered down.

We can argue about whether this amounts to statutory underpinning of the royal charter—we would argue that it does, while others might argue that it does not—but that really does not matter, as long as it does its job and protects the new independent regulator. No doubt all the political parties will want to claim the agreement as a victory for them, but the real winners are the innocent victims of press mistreatment. The press have nothing to fear from the royal charter, but when they get things wrong, the innocent victims of their mistakes can be confident that there will be a robust system in place to put it right.

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