YOU wait ages for a regulator to come along and then three come along at once. At least that’s what could well happen in the aftermath of what I believe to have been a right Royal Charter screw-up.
With varying degrees of vehemence, national newspapers, regional newspapers and magazine publishers have said ‘no’ to the idea of Her Majesty’s Press Regulator (I know, I’m being sarcastic).
If you’ll indulge a brief digression, it reminds me of a short-lived but very funny TV series called Hot Metal. It was to newspapers what Drop The Dead Donkey was to TV news. In it, the experienced, but disreputable, chief reporter, called Greg Kettle, used to barge through officials waving a Press card and shouting, “Her Majesty’s Press!”
However, back to reality – unfortunately.
First, the publishers of The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph are reported taking legal advice over the ‘Royal Regulator’ and its powers. Then, the Telegraph deputy editor, Benedict Brogan, writes about “quietly but firmly” declining to take part.
Fraser Nelson and Ian Hislop – the editors of The Spectator and Private Eye – are both quoted as none too enamoured, either.
None of the new regulators are likely to be Scottish. The Scottish Parliament might get round to debating the McCluskey Report this month. The lack of a headlong rush to debate it supports a growing general view that its recommendations will be ignored.
In theory, multiple regulators are allowed under the Royal Charter as long as they are approved by the Recognition Panel. However, the regulators will have to be funded by the publishers they regulate.
Splitting the industry into three will mean the regulators will not be financially viable. Even the comparatively cheap Press Complaints Commission that we have grown to loathe costs around £2 million a year.
On top of this, regulators will be approved only if they are ‘Leveson-compliant’, which includes the ability to impose fines, order the size and position of corrections, and provide free arbitration.
The alternative is to risk exemplary damages in England and Wales in actions for defamation and breach of privacy. As most publishers have an English base, there is nothing to stop Scots suing in England.
This would force publishers, especially of local and regional papers, to be extremely cautious in the stories they cover.
The only hope is to have exemplary damages declared to be a breach of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to free expression. It would, of course, be ironic for newspapers which have consistently attacked the European Court of Human Rights to ask it to judge in their favour.
If it were to do so, the carrot-and-stick approach that Lord Leveson hoped would make newspapers toe the line would fail.
That leaves the prospect of multiple regulators. Perhaps in the spirit of other policies of this government, they should let the market decide. If competition is supposed to work for the health service and railways, could it apply also to the regulators?
As the old joke used to have it: “Why is there only one Monopolies Commission?”
Now, of course, it’s called the Competition Commission – but naming it so doesn’t make it competitive. And calling something an approved regulator doesn’t automatically make it work.
Francis Shennan is director of MediaFaculty.com and Visiting Lecturer in journalism and law at Westminster, Stirling and Strathclyde Universities.