Oliver Letwin tells Hacked Off: Royal Charter concessions necessary to keep press on board

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Pressure group Hacked Off yesterday attended cross-party talks on the future of press regulation in order to urge politicians not to water down the recommendations of Leveson.

The talks continued yesterday as negotiators for the three main political parties tried to find a way through the current stand-off over the future of press regulation. It has now been nearly three weeks since the Conservatives published their proposal for a Royal Charter to underpin the effectiveness of a new press regulator.
 
Speaking after yesterday’s meeting Hacked Off director Brian Cathcart said: “We have made clear to [Conservative ministers] Maria Miller and Oliver Letwin, as well as to Labour and the Liberal Democrats, that the Conservative ministers’ draft of a Royal Charter is a sell-out to newspapers that were condemned in the Leveson Report for wreaking havoc in the lives of ordinary people.
 
“If this plan were put into action it would take us straight back to the conditions that made the Leveson Inquiry necessary in the first place, with editors able to lie, bully and intrude with impunity. This would be an outright betrayal of all those victims who gave evidence to the Inquiry.”
 
Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman and Liberal Democrat minister Lord Wallace are also involved in the press regulation talks.
 
Cathcart said: “When we asked Mr Letwin to explain why his draft contained wholesale concessions to the newspaper bosses, he said these were necessary to persuade the press to participate in a regulatory system.
 
“We told him that this was akin to giving a convicted man a veto on his sentence. The press had the chance to put its views to the inquiry and Leveson’s recommendations took those into account. It can’t be right that ministers are now prepared to let editors win in private an argument they lost in public.”
 
Hacked Off said the secrecy surrounding meetings over the future of press regulation was in breach of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendation that the political process around implementation of his report should be open and transparent. 
 
The Royal Charter plan was published by the Conservatives following two months of confidential negotiations with press owners and it needs cross-party support to go ahead.
 
It provides for the creation of a Recognition Panel which would effectively licence the new system of self regulation to ensure that it continues to be independent and effective.
 
The main political sticking points appear to be around the independence of the Recognition Panel and the effectiveness of the Royal Charter vehicle.
 
In his report, Leveson said that the recognition body for the new regulator must be independent of the press, Parliament and government.
 
But under the Conservative plan, the appointments committee for the Recognition Panel would include a representative of the publishers.
 
There are also legal questions over whether a Royal Charter would be vulnerable to future tampering by ministers without some statutory underpinning.
 
The detail of the contract-based system of press regulation which the proposed Royal Charter Recognition Panel would licence is believed to be at an advanced stage and has been worked out by the press owners' Industry Implementation Group under Trinity Mirror group legal director Paul Vickers. Associated Newspapers' editor emeritus Peter Wright has also been closely involved in finalising the industry plan and negotiating with politicians.
 
Press Gazette understands that the details of the new system of self regulation will not be published by owners until the politicians have settled on the details of the recognition system. 
 
 
Press Complaints Commission chairman Lord Hunt said yesterday in a letter to the Media Standards Trust: “I and my team stand ready to establish a Leveson-compliant, self-regulatory structure for news publishers. How (and indeed if) that body is scrutinised by a 'verifier' is a matter for others. The sooner we are able to begin, the happier, I shall be.”
 
 
At that point, Lord Hunt said that at a meeting the previous week 90 publisher representatives had agreed to set up a regulator which would comply with Leveson’s recommendations. He said this included a conscience clause in journalists’ contracts, a whistleblowers’ hotline and a ban on current editors sitting on the complaints handling body. 
 

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