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Media: Press Regulation

Volume 743: debated on Thursday 14 February 2013


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to establish by royal charter a body to assure effective regulation of the press.

My Lords, as I said at this Dispatch Box yesterday, we need to see tougher press regulation. That is why my right honourable friend the Culture Secretary published a draft royal charter, setting out how tougher regulation might operate. It provides an independent panel to assess whether or not the press regulator meets demanding recognition criteria. This is a matter for continuing discussion between the three main political parties.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there are manifold defects in the royal charter process, in that it hands over power to Ministers and will require 10 pages of legislation to implement? Could I ask him an even more fundamental question? According to the published guidance of the Privy Council,

“the grant of new Charters is comparatively rare. New grants of Royal Charters are these days reserved for eminent professional bodies or charities which have a solid record of achievement”.

Is it not curious that at this time of all, when we have had phone hacking and the worst press scandals for 50 years, we should be contemplating this step? If we are going to recognise anybody just now, might it not be the victims of press intrusion?

My Lords, the very first thing, as I said yesterday, is that we need to ensure—and we all seek to ensure—that what happened never happens again. On the point that my noble friend makes about the charter, I have looked into the number of charters, and there are hundreds of them covering a wide range of varieties. They are a vehicle for setting up a legal body. I say to my noble friend that we are seeking to achieve an upgrading and enhancing of the professional standards of the press. We have excellent men and women working in the press, and we have a few people who have let that profession down very badly indeed.

My Lords, when the Minister was at the Dispatch Box, he stressed the importance of victims—and he did so again in the Statement that we had from the Commons yesterday. Could he tell us whether the victims—the Dowlers, the McCanns—believe that the charter is going to serve their needs, and whether they support that, instead of the underpinning recommended by Lord Justice Leveson?

My Lords, I am confident that the points made by Hacked Off and other groups will form part of the ongoing talks. I should explain that the royal charter is a draft document published to aid the continuing cross-party discussions. The Prime Minister and the Culture Secretary have held a number of meetings with Hacked Off. I assure your Lordships that those views continue to be heard and are taken into account. I am, of course, aware of what the ladies and gentlemen and Hacked Off have said about the royal charter, but it is an honest endeavour.

Does the Minister agree that the only prospect of a royal charter establishing a recognition panel independent enough to gain public trust, and the trust of victims of press abuse, will be if all three parties work together to stand up to the powerful press lobby, whose influence is so evident in the Conservative Party’s proposals? What prospect is there of the cross-party talks actually achieving that?

My Lords, I am positive that the politicians who are working on this are going into the matter with good will. As I have said before, this is a draft document. I would not pretend that it was a final version, as I said yesterday, and I very much hope that the politicians who are attending these talks today and in the coming days will bear in mind what noble Lords, and others outside this Chamber, have said.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, under the terms of the BBC charter, executives of the BBC can neither nominate nor veto members of the governing board of the BBC? Is he further aware that this principle also applies in the commercial sector in relation to Ofcom? Indeed, it was well recognised in the Leveson report that there had to be that separation of powers—that proper independence—and it became one of Leveson’s principal recommendations. So why has the Conservative Party flouted that recommendation in the document that it published yesterday?

My Lords, this draft royal charter is a vehicle for setting up an oversight body with robust recognition criteria. There are many examples of royal charters. Indeed, the BBC was set up for a different purpose.

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord can help me. What role does Parliament have in considering the details of the royal charter? Does it have to be approved by both Houses of Parliament? Are we entitled to try to amend the terms of the charter? What is the next stage?

My Lords, under the process for the royal charter there would have to be the continuing talks that I mentioned. A new recognition body would then be set up, as recommended by Lord Justice Leveson. Certain criteria would have to be met, and a number of processes have to take place. The whole point about a royal charter, of course, is that it is set up and not voted on by Parliament.

My Lords, most of the attention following Leveson has been on press regulation issues. When and how are the Government going to address the issue of dominant media ownership and the need for greater plurality in the future?

My Lords, an effective media ownership regime must strike the right balance between securing plurality and allowing growth. The Government will carefully consider Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals for addressing concerns over organic growth. Online activity should also be considered in any assessment of plurality.