Hacked Off: six reasons the cross-party Royal Charter is good news for journalists

After all the hostile propaganda about the Leveson Royal Charter agreed by Parliament in March, working journalists could be forgiven for thinking it will make their working life harder and less satisfying. The opposite is true. The new system will bring significant benefits for journalists with standards and integrity – in other words, the vast majority. Here are six good things about it:

1. It will be independent of the club of proprietors and executives who let journalism down

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) system existed for the benefit of proprietors and editors and not for journalists. Yes, sometimes it stood up for journalism, but if ever corporate interests clashed with those of ordinary journalists there was only one winner.

If the reputation of journalism has been damaged in recent years, a big share of the blame lies with the committee of top press executives who control the PCC: PressBoF (The Press Standards Board of Finance). Their job was to uphold standards but their stubborn refusal to respond appropriately to major scandals destroyed public trust. 

The Leveson Royal Charter takes away PressBoF’s influence over the regulation system.

2. The new system will be more free of political control than the PCC ever was.

In arguments over regulation, journalists have one consistent demand: there should be no political control and no censorship. The Leveson Royal Charter ensures there won’t be.

Leveson recommended self-regulation, but to ensure that this could not be another poodle of the proprietors he said it should be periodically inspected by a second body, the recognition panel. And this panel has to be completely independent of both industry and politicians. That’s what the Leveson Royal Charter sets up, and the Charter itself is protected from government interference by a special clause in an Act of Parliament.

PressBoF doesn’t want that protection, and it would allow working peers with party affiliations to hold senior positions across the system. (The current chairs of both PressBoF and the PCC are working Conservative peers.)         

3.  For the first time, journalists will help write the standards code.

Under the PCC, the code was the ‘Editors’ Code’, written by a committee composed exclusively of editors. Journalists working at the coal face were never involved, even though the code is the standard against which complaints about their work are judged.

Under the Leveson Royal Charter the new code committee will be made up of one-third editors, one-third independent lay people and one-third working journalists. So for the first time journalists who are not editors will have a say in the code that governs their professional conduct.  

4.   Journalists will be less vulnerable to chilling by legal threats, and better able to defend their work.

Because of the high cost of defending legal actions in English courts, journalists have long been vulnerable to chilling by wealthy or litigious people and organisations, including some with no-win-no-fee deals. Editors and executives would shrink from the risk of a court battle that might cost a six-figure sum. When this happened journalists were either prevented from publishing good stories or given no chance to defend and justify their reporting.    

Under the Leveson Royal Charter the self-regulator will offer arbitration for libel and privacy cases, and claimants will have to use this service or face tough cost penalties if they insist on going to court. Since arbitration will be far cheaper, the pressure on news publishers to cave in early will be correspondingly reduced. And journalists will have a far better chance of being able to defend their reporting on its merits than they do now.

5.   For the first time, journalists under pressure to do unethical things will have a hotline to the regulator

Journalists are sometimes bullied by their superiors into doing and writing things that break the law or breach the code, in the absence of any public interest justification. Under the Leveson Charter the regulator will provide a hotline by which this can be reported, giving journalists a new protection in the workplace.

6. This is a golden opportunity to rebuild public trust in journalism.

The vast majority of journalists already try to be fair and accurate. They keep decent records. They discuss challenging ethical issues with colleagues. And when they get something wrong – as every journalist sometimes does – they know the record should be promptly corrected. Journalists like these have nothing to fear from effective, independent self-regulation.

But because the industry is tainted by the actions of a reckless, unethical minority, and the majority needs to show the public that a page has been turned and they they are ready to be held to decent standards by a body that won’t let them off the hook when things go wrong. That’s what the public expects and it is what journalists would demand of any other group in the same position.

Journalists will never be popular; the job is not like that. But they do a vital job and they mostly do it well, so they are capable of commanding far more respect than they do. By embracing change, distancing themselves from wrongdoing and showing they are ready to be accountable, they can begin to build public trust. And with higher levels of trust the job may even get easier in some ways, and more rewarding.

What happens next?

The Leveson Royal Charter is likely to receive formal Privy Council approval in the next few weeks, once the cynical delaying device of a rival PressBoF charter has been swept aside. After that, things will inevitably move slowly. An independent recognition panel must be appointed, which will take months, and news publishers will set up a new self-regulator complete with an arbitration service. Once the panel and the self-regulator are in place the recognition process can happen and after that the new system can begin work. (There is no requirement that all the news publishers back the self-regulator at the outset.) No corners are being cut because everyone knows it’s worth taking the time to get this right.

If you want to know more about this you can read a more detailed version of this article, with supporting links and references, on the Hacked Off website: http://hackinginquiry.org.

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