The Labour Party has reaffirmed its commitment to statutory underpinning for a new press regulator and promised a vote on the issue next month.
Speaking yesterday, deputy Labour leader and shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman challenged the Conservatives to put forward their proposal for the new press regulator to be recognized in law via a Royal Charter.
Newspaper and magazine owners are currently thrashing out the final details on a contract-based system of press regulation which they say will be fully compliant with the Leveson report.
The only sticking-point is tackling the legally complex area of creating a libel arbitration arm for the new body.
PCC chairman Lord Hunt has said that press owners agree there must be outside “verification but not oversight” of the new regulator.
But Harman insists that legislation is the only way for the effectiveness of the new regulator to be guaranteed.
She said: “The role of the law - the legal underpinning – would be limited to setting up a body whose task would be to recognise the self-regulatory system and to check it once every 3 years.
“Leveson said this was essential to ensure that, despite all the protestations of change and good intentions, the press did not once again slip back into their old ways - as they have always done after all the other inquiries and reports. We strongly support that.
“It cannot be just the good faith of the press that ensures the new system remains independent and effective. There was good faith after previous Royal Commissions and after the Calcutt Reports, but they have always slipped back. The new system must be guaranteed by law.”
She noted that many statutes already affect the press – including the Human Rights Act 1998 – and that journalists themselves have lobbied for a Defamation Act.
She also noted that the new legally-underpinned regulation system “would remain voluntary to join, on the basis of incentives”.
She added: ”A central feature of our democracy is that it is the responsibility of elected representatives to make and change laws, and we can do that at any time.
“If that is a slippery slope, so is the very existence of Parliament. The only way to address that concern is to abolish Parliament, and we have yet to hear anyone proposing that.”
Harman said:”The freedom of the press is essential. But so is that other freedom: the freedom of a private citizen to go about their business without harassment, intrusion or the gross invasion of their grief and trauma. Those two freedoms are not incompatible.”
Talking about Oliver Letwin’s proposals for the Tories for a “combination of Royal Charter and accompanying statutory provisions”, Harman said: “The most straightforward way of implementing Leveson is to have a single statute.
“While the statutory route is straightforward the Royal Charter route is anything but. It is untried and untested and we are unpersuaded that it can do the job that Leveson proposes.
“Government has never before sought to legislate through a combination of statute and Royal Charter rather than through a bill in Parliament.It is as yet unclear how the body established by Charter could be funded.
“It would clearly need statute to stop ministers on some future occasion toughening or weakening its provisions by edict of the Privy Council.
“There would need to be statute to provide for the exemplary damages regime which would incentivise newspapers to join the self-regulator.
“Perhaps the most fundamental concern is whether the recognition body established by Royal Charter would survive the inevitable legal challenge.”
Harman urged the Government to publish its Royal Charter proposal by the end of this month so that it can be discussed by Parliament and promised a debate and a vote one of Labour’s ‘Opposition Days’ in Parliament next month.