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Law Column: The Royal Charter – where will it all end?

As has been widely reported, the Privy Council is meeting on Wednesday to consider a royal charter to regulate the press.

But the proposed charter on the agenda is not, as you might have expected, the Parliament-backed one agreed in March by the leaders of the three main political parties and Hacked Off.  Instead, the charter being considered is the one put together by PressBof and Lords Black and Hunt, which was submitted to the Council last April.

There has been much talk about the cross-party Charter representing the will of both Parliament and of the British people.  Whether these claims are true or not is a matter for others, but whatever the reality, no-one should really be surprised that the Privy Council is considering the only Charter it has received.  After all, the cross-party Charter has yet to be submitted by the Government, and according to a written statement to the House of Commons from Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, an updated version can be expected “in due course”.

Hacked Off is not happy.  On July 3rd, it sent an open letter signed by a number of phone hacking victims to the Culture Secretary, in which she was urged to send the Charter agreed by the party leaders and the pressure group, to the Privy Council in time for the July 10th meeting.

And in a House of Lords’ debate last week, some of their Lordships became quite agitated by what they saw as the Government’s delay on this issue.  When asked by former Conservative cabinet minister Lord Forsyth how the government had found themselves second in the queue in a matter of this importance, Lord Wallace replied: “I suspect there was some very fast footwork by the press”.

On the other hand, the Government began last week by saying that the delay in pressing forward with the cross-party Charter by saying that there needs to be due process, to avoid a legal challenge in the High Court.  So the Government’s delay is all the fault of the lawyers, obviously.

The whole issue of press regulation has always had political undertones, but to many outside observers, the politics is ramping up to a new level.

The Government backed Charter has not gone away.  It appears that under our unwritten constitution, the Council can only consider one charter at a time.  As the Prime Minister said in the Commons at last week’s PMQs: “The legal advice…… is that we have to take these things in order: we have to take the press’s royal charter first and then we have to bring forward the royal charter on which we have all agreed.”

But the following day, in her written “Leveson Update” statement to the Commons, the Culture Secretary revealed that the draft cross-party Charter has been the subject further review and delay.  After revealing that talks has been held with the Scottish Government and the Commissioner for Public Appointments had been consulted, Maria Miller said: “a legal technical review of the charter has been undertaken as part of an overall assurance process. I will be publishing an updated version of the cross-party charter in due course.”

So where will it all end?  And when?

No doubt opponents of the PressBof Charter took comfort from the Prime Minister telling the Commons: “I think the press’s royal charter has some serious shortcomings so no, I haven’t changed my view”.

On the other hand, the Culture Secretary said in her statement: “The press are making progress on setting up their self-regulator, which is an integral part of the process outlined by the Leveson report.”

And to add to the mix, Lord Justice Leveson is expected to be questioned by MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee at the end of this month, with July 24th being mentioned as the most likely date.

But one truth is undeniable: the financial risks created by the cross-party Charter pose a huge threat to the viability of the regional press.

There can be no doubt that the Press Complaints Commission will be changing within the next 12 months or so.  After all, the PCC’s Chairman, Lord Hunt, said last week that “significant reform of press regulation is needed, and will be delivered.”

But can those reforms be brought about without huge and unsustainable financial burdens being imposed on the industry?  PressBof believes that the answer is ‘yes’ – but only if its draft Charter is accepted.

But will the politicians see it like this?  Or will they hold out for the Charter agreed by the party leaders and Hacked Off in a private meeting held deep in the heart of Whitehall. Only time will tell – and only those with particularly sensitive political antennae have any real idea of where (and when) it will all end.

Meanwhile, regional journalists will just carry on doing what they do best – reporting in the ethical, responsible, and professional way that Leveson himself acknowledged so fulsomely in his report.