A group of international press and media organisations has written directly to the Queen urging her not to approve the Royal Charter on press regulation which is set to go for approval by the Privy Council at the end of this month.
They argue it is not the role of a Royal Charter to impose "repressive statutory controls" which they say would bring Parliament into the "heart of the newsroom" for the first time.
The Queen is head of the Privy Council and gives her assent to all the Government decisions presented before it.
It is believed that the last time the monarch refused the Royal Assent for a piece of Government business was Queen Anne in 1705.
Media groups which include the World Association of Newspapers and the International Press Institute say in their letter to the Queen: “For more than three centuries since Britain abolished the last set of statutory controls on the press in 1695, the United Kingdom has been a consistent champion of the most crucial freedom of all - freedom of expression – and a beacon of liberty across the world.
“No one should be in any doubt that the proposed Royal Charter which politicians are forcing Your Majesty to sign is, despite the camouflage, in reality a set of repressive statutory controls being imposed on the press against its will. That should not be the function of a Royal Charter.”
The Royal Charter sets out the terms under which a recognition panel will license any new press regulation. But the groups reject the suggestion that this would bring about a system of “independent regulation”.
They say: “...by laying down rules about how that regulator must work and how the ethical codes that bind the press should be written this toxic charter brings Parliament for the first time ever to the heart of the newsroom. It breaches the fundamental principle that politicians must never get involved in editorial content regulation. And it lays the foundation for fully fledged statutory controls.”
The letter warns of a potential chilling effect on journalism not just in the UK, but around the world.
“The world still follows Britain in so many areas. If the UK moves to control the press through the force of law then it will have a terrifying knock-on effect throughout the Commonwealth and much of the developing world where Britain has a key leadership role.
“The fact that this is being done by Royal Charter – an instrument traditionally used to grant rights, not to curtail them – will make that infinitely worse because of the respect in which You personally, and the Crown institutionally, are held throughout the world.
"The actions of Britain’s Parliament will be used as an excuse by those who want to muzzle the press in their own country and stifle the free flow of information – and there are many governments who would love to do so. And it is your name, Your Majesty, that will regrettably be taken in vain.
They warn that the Royal Charter will be “seized on by enemies of free speech everywhere eager to impose similar controls”.
And the letter concludes: “We urge you, Ma’am, as the final guarantor of freedom of expression across the UK and your Commonwealth, not to sign this Charter.”
The main UK newspaper and magazine trade bodies have yet to reveal whether or not they will change their proposed new regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, to fit in with the Royal Charter. If they don’t publishers would be left open to the threat of exemplary damages in legal actions under legislation linked to the Royal Charter.
Meanwhile the publisher-backed Free Speech Network today published the findings of a new poll which they said found that 62 per cent of Britons believe politicians should not have the final say on press regulation.
The letter to the Queen was signed by:
- Commonwealth Press Union Media Trust
- FIPP – The Worldwide Magazine Media Association
- Inter American Press Association
- International Association of Broadcasting
- International Press Insititute
- World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers
World Press Freedom Committee