Labour: Tory plans for Royal Charter would give monarch 'inappropriate' role

  • Labour still willing to push for Commons vote on press law
  • 'Inappropriate to deploy the prestige of the monarch' in regulation
  • Crossbench peer: Press has been caught 'rolling in the gutter'

Tory proposals for a press regulator backed by Royal Charter would put too much power in the hands of ministers and be an inappropriate role for the monarch, Labour has said.

Senior peer Baroness Jones of Whitchurch said Labour remains willing to force a Commons vote on proposals for a new system in response to the Leveson Inquiry if cross-party talks falter and stressed the need for progress before the end of the month.

Junior business minister Viscount Younger of Leckie said Culture Secretary Maria Miller "will not shy away" from a press law as a last resort if a new system of self-regulation cannot be made to work.

Opening a Lords debate on the response to Lord Justice Leveson's report, he said: "The Prime Minister has said he does not believe that statutory legislation is necessary to achieve the principles outlined by Leveson.

"However, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has been equally clear that if the industry does not deliver a tough, new, independent self-regulatory system then she will not shy away from going down the statutory legislation route. This would be the only option left."

Work has been done on a draft Bill and proposals for legislation from Labour and campaign group Hacked Off have been considered in cross-party talks.

But Lord Younger said: "The Culture Secretary has been clear that she remains committed to a non-statutory route. As such, the cross-party talks are also exploring the idea of a Royal Charter as an alternative means of fulfilling the Leveson principles."

Opposition media spokeswoman Lady Jones said Labour's proposed Bill meets the "essential requirements of Leveson without being invasive or cumbersome".

While the other options are also being considered, she said: "We do have some concerns about the Government's proposals that an independent regulator be underpinned by a Royal Charter. We welcome the fact that this represents an acceptance of the need for a legal framework to underpin the role of the regulator, but we have some doubts as to whether this is the best mechanism.

"For example, we are not convinced that it is right to bypass Parliament on an issue where fundamental rights are at stake. Also, it seems inappropriate to deploy the prestige of the monarch in a controversial role where intervention might be necessary.

"In addition, the monarch would be obliged to act under the advice of ministers, placing too great a concentration of power in the hands of the executive rather than Parliament.

"It is crucial that we harness the current energy around the discussions to reach agreement within this month."

In a warning that the response to Leveson could further expose divisions between the coalition parties, she added: "If the talks falter, we retain the political will to put the issue to a vote in the Commons."

Lib Dem peer Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury said the real problem with the Press Complaints Commission was never its code of conduct but its "manifest inability to implement it".

Not properly regulated, she said the press has been "exercising tyranny".

'The media's dirty tricks department'

Crossbencher Baroness Boothroyd said newspapers and the media are not a law unto themselves.

"To those who say the press can't be trusted to put its house in order, I say it now has no choice," she said.

"The media's dirty tricks department are no longer in the last-chance saloon. They have been caught rolling in the gutter. They must be cleared out along with their methods."

Journalists need to be better trained at a grassroots level, and the decline of local newspapers and provincial press is a "tragedy in this respect", she said.

"I personally am not inclined to the view that the best way forward is through legislation, but I am firm in the belief that swift, positive action by the press and the wider media is certainly needed to avoid it."

The Rt Rev Lord Bishop of Norwich spoke of the contribution of local and regional newspapers to community life.

"It is the print media, for all its faults, which has often held our public institutions to account, especially locally and regionally, and it's hard to see social media replacing this function. And it leaves us with a potential democratic deficit," he said.

Conservative peer Lord Inglewood spoke about the growing digital revolution in the media and its implications for regulation.

"This revolution matters because regulation surrounding media behaviour has traditionally depended upon two things. First of all, platform. And secondly, jurisdiction," he said.

Lord Fowler, a former journalist and cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher, backed new regulation.

"The journalists and editors I have worked with over the years in the national and regional press were and are predominantly men of honesty and integrity and sometimes of substantial courage," he said.

"So, frankly, I'm much more accustomed to defending the press and much more comfortable in that role.

"So why in the last two years have I campaigned for change? Basically, it is because I have seen the values that I and most journalists hold high trampled into the dirt. It is because I have seen so-called journalists attacking the public rather than carrying out their essential duty of standing up for their rights.

"I have seen a newspaper industry unable and unwilling to take action against palpable wrong-doing."

'We shall see a profound change of culture'

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission said he was confident he and the media industry could deliver a new regulatory structure by the middle of the year.

Conservative Lord Hunt of Wirral told fellow peers he was "optimistic" of a good outcome, during a Lords debate on Lord Justice Leveson's report on the culture, practices and ethics of the press.

He said: "We shall see a profound change of culture and an end to sloppy journalism ruining the lives of innocent people without losing all that is good in our process.

"We shall demonstrate that for a good journalist freedom of expression and professional principles can and must be inseparable."

Until the new structure was fully up and running, he said it remained his responsibility to ensure the PCC continued to deliver its "fast, fair and free" service to the public and to establish the new regulatory structure.

He said: "It is clear to me that the industry now understands that between the existing and inadequate system of self-regulation and what Leveson proposes there is no acceptable third way."

Quoting from the report, he added: "It is worth repeating that the ideal outcome is a satisfactory independent regulatory body established by the industry that is able to secure the voluntary support and membership of the entire industry and thus able to command the support of the public."

He said: "I am confident that together with the industry I can deliver that new structure, with comprehensive sign-up from right across the newspaper and magazine industries by the middle of this year and it will then be for others here and in the other place to decide whether any form of statute is required, either to guarantee the independence of the new regulator or to underpin the proposed incentives to membership."

Lord Hunt said the report "reminds us all too vividly of the horrors of the past" and was "replete with some very good ideas".

He added: "I'm delighted Sir Brian decided not to recommend a system of self-regulation established by statute.

"Like many others I would have regarded that as a step too far and an unacceptable imposition upon freedom of expression. It is also, I believe, unnecessary. "

Lord Hunt repeated his belief that contract law would be able to provide the necessary underpinning for a new regulator.

"A truly effective but non-statutory regulatory system can and must be created to establish once and for all the highest possible professional standards right across the newspaper and magazine industry and amongst digital-only news publishers, all underpinned by law but civil contract law," he said.

To the victims, he told peers that the clear message must be "never, never, never, never, never, never again".

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