The Government’s proposed Royal Charter to set a framework for the press is underpinned by the Crime and Courts Act and the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act. The former empowers the courts to impose exemplary damages on publishers that fail to sign up to a press regulator recognised by a panel created by the charter. A third and new act of Parliament would be required to compel those publishers to sign up to the regulator under threat of fines and imprisonment.
Toby Young argued yesterday that the power to amend the charter by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Parliament, contained in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act, “creates the impression that the architects of the Royal Charter want to reserve the right to impose much more draconian statutory controls should the press not comply with the new regulatory regime”. This can be argued either way (though as it happens, I think he is right). But what surely is unarguable are the implications of a new Act.
If to Labour and the Liberal Democrat, who support statutory regulation, is added the minority of Conservative MPs who also do so, there is a majority for statutory regulation in the Commons. That majority will therefore get to work on any bill that proposes such regulation, and there can be no certainty what will emerge at the end of its proceedings – given that David Cameron, whose instincts are against statutory regulation, thus has no majority to prevent or shape it.
Such an outcome would unambiguously represent Parliamentary control of the press, and you will either be content with it or you will not. ConservativeHome is in the latter camp. State control of newspapers in Britain is incompatible with a free society here and an encouragement to closed ones abroad. That view is not discredited by the appalling behaviour of newspapers over the years not to celebrities, who after all have willingly placed themselves in the public eye, but to citizens who haven’t.
It’s clear that most news publications won’t sign up to the Government’s charter, and will make the same case about press freedom that I do above, though doubtless more eloquently. Ministers would then have to decide whether to introduce the act that I describe in order to force them to do so. Any paper threatened with exemplary damages would then go to the courts, arguing that the state powers in question are incompatible with free expression and thus with human rights.
Years of legal wrangling by M’Learned Friends and various HugeFee QCs would follow, and relations between the Government and the papers would deteriorate further. Though Ed Miliband’s lurch to the left has left Cameron in a better position with the right-of-centre papers, he won’t want all this to happen on his watch. No wonder the Government’s position – not the Conservative Party’s, remember, but the Coalition’s – is to seek a little, though not much, more time for compromise.
If this can’t be achieved, the Government’s Royal Charter will be sealed by the Privy Council on October 30 (unless Ministers back off). Maria Miller said yesterday that “whatever we go forward with, to be effective, has to be credible and we have to indeed take the press and the public with us”). But for the Government both to take the press with it and impose its own charter on the industry would be an obvious contradiction in terms. Ministers cannot ride both horses at once.
Cameron, Miller and the Conservatives are facing the consequence of, if one’s kind, the way modern politics works and – if one isn’t – a snap decision which has gone horribly wrong. The setting-up of the Leveson Inquiry was spurred by reports that journalists had deleted messages to Millie Dowler’s mobile. These turned out to be untrue (though her messages had undoubtedly been hacked). The consequence is that the Prime Minister’s Government is preparing to cross the Rubicon of statutory press control – precisely what he himself has warned against.