IT is literally a right royal screw-up! We are to have a Royal Charter setting up a watchdog to oversee an independent regulator who will oversee the Press.
Gilbert and Sullivan would have put that to music.
Instead of an Act of Parliament, we will have a Royal Charter.
This is the same procedure that was used to set up Cambridge University in 1231 and the British East India Company in 1600. One of the most recent was to the Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity in 2011.
True, the BBC operates under a Royal Charter but that can be a source of weakness. A Royal charter can be agreed by privy councilors and approved by the Queen.
The new charter will establish a ‘Recognition Panel’ responsible for monitoring an independent Press regulator. The charter will be supported by a clause inserted into legislation insisting that only a substantial majority in Parliament can change it.
So why not just have an Act of Parliament?
I look forward to Foreign Secretary, William Hague, trying to lecture Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Press freedom. “No, Mr Putin. A Royal Charter is not like a presidential decree at all, even though it sounds like one.”
And after all the ‘hot air’ expended over the principle that Press regulation should not have statutory underpinning, we get an archaic form of statutory underpinning.
It’s as if putting red velvet on handcuffs stops them being handcuffs. Yes, they are used in different circumstances and the wearer consents to their use but they’re still restraints.
For the last year, the Press, politicians and police have been on trial at the court of Lord Leveson and rightly so. But everyone has connived to cover up the one culprit which has not been named and shamed: our legal system.
Almost all of the victims of Press wrong-doing were prevented from taking effective action by the ridiculous cost of the law.
This was well-illustrated by the Leveson Inquiry itself. ‘Counsel to the Inquiry’ consisted of Robert Jay QC, and barristers David Barr and Carine Patry Hoskins. Then they needed an ‘Additional Counsel to the Inquiry for Module 2′, Lucinda Boon.
Between July 2011 and October last year, they cost £1,353,900.
In most trades you would expect to be able to buy the best for that kind of money. Yet they needed the assistance of four more barristers who cost £305,600.
The law is expensive because lawyers still operate a self-serving closed shop.
Other lawyers – some of them MPs and peers, but others Parliamentary draughtsmen – write complex laws in an unnecessarily complicated way. Have you ever read an Act of Parliament? It is as if the word processor had never been invented.
The clause supporting the new Royal Charter will be included in an existing piece of Government legislation. Why not print off a short Act of Parliament with a name that tells us what it is about?
Yet we have Lord Leveson lecturing us about providing a low-cost arbitration service.
We would not need additional regulators if the law and lawyers did their jobs more effectively – and a lot more cost-effectively.
Francis Shennan is director of MediaFaculty.com and Visiting Lecturer in journalism and law at Westminster, Stirling and Strathclyde Universities.