Response to announcement of Royal Charter

Jo Glanville – director, English PEN

The compromise announced in Parliament today introduces unprecedented measures for regulation of the media in the UK. While I, along with members of English PEN, would like to ensure that the press can never again invade privacy and destroy lives on the scale seen in the phone-hacking scandal, I am concerned that the Royal Charter on press regulation will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech.

There remains an urgent need for clarity on who will be expected to sign up to the new regulator and who will be liable to pay exemplary damages: punitive fines of this nature have been judged by the European Court of Human Rights as a chill on political reporting and investigative journalism.

The focus of the debate has been on the newspaper industry, as the main culprits of wrongdoing. There has been no attention on the likely impact on political publications, small magazines and websites. Under the terms laid out in the Charter, it is clear that current affairs publications and websites will be exposed to damages and costs if they do not join the regulator. The uncertainty will introduce a chilling effect for all editors and publishers in the UK. No one’s freedom to publish should be dependent on proving their reasons for not joining a regulator.

The Royal Charter includes statutory underpinning to safeguard it from interference by Government ministers and the influence of the media, ensuring that changes can only be made with a two-thirds majority in both Houses. However, while this may secure the Charter from immediate interference, there is no guarantee that future politicians will refrain from introducing changes that may restrict press freedom.

The Charter also stipulates that the Recognition Board must inform Parliament after a year if the system of regulation does not cover all significant news publishers. This is currently a likely eventuality, following the threats of the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail not to join the regulator. What will happen then? Lord Justice Leveson recommended the imposition of a backstop regulator in this instance, so we may still face the worrying prospect of statutory regulation.

Politicians and campaigners have engaged with a difficult task – balancing the protection of individuals whose lives have been ruined by press intrusion against the protection of the right to freedom of expression. No solution can satisfy all sides, but the uncertainties that accompany the new dispensation are likely to affect the free speech of us all.

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