What will the royal charter mean for the future of British press?
Last Friday, the culture secretary, Maria Miller, the shadow secretary for culture, Harriet Harman, and Liberal Democrat peer Lord Wallace of Tankerness agreed a new royal charter which could completely alter the future of the British press.
For over 300 years, Britain has had a free press which underpins democracy. But now, the industry is expected to undergo rigorous self-regulation overseen by the Government. The proposed charter was not created by Leveson or even included in his recommendations following the phone-hacking inquiry.
A panel consisting of a chair and a board would be appointed by a committee set up by the commissioner for public appointments. Regulators will then be elected by the newspapers and their work will be reviewed every few years to ensure they are complying with the guidelines.
The only area of the charter that seems “flawed” is that it can be amended by politicians at their will, as long as they have a two thirds majority vote across the Lords and Commons. This is obviously one of the main concerns a lot of newspapers have, knowing that the way they report could change at any time.
The notion of self-regulation appears to have the vast support of the public, with the majority of adults surveyed in a YouGov poll saying they thought it was fairly important to have a new system of self-regulation.
As expected, despite being in favour of self-regulation, various newspapers have come out against the royal charter, fearing with this system politicians can change the way they report at any time. The industry had its own proposals which were ignored and the idea of being managed by politicians is not something they agree with.
The Spectator, in particular, has condemned the proposal and the former executive editor of the News of the World, Neil Wallis, said “the idea that politicians can have any say in the running of a free press is simply laughable.”
Whilst journalists may snigger at the thought of politicians being in charge, the charter would still affect them whether they opt in or not. Although it would be an optional system, if any publication defying it should end up in court, they could face steep costs.
So if the charter is likely to affect the press when it comes to law, whether they opt in or not, why don’t they back it? Although they might not agree with it, after the recent phone-hacking scandal, they need to come out positively. Journalists need to regain the trust of readers and defend their image. They need show that they respect the views of their readers, as if they don’t, they are in real danger of alienating them.
In terms of what we would see in the papers if they chose to opt in, content would be different. It is likely we would see fewer stories reported from ‘unnamed sources’ and more hard stories with facts and real evidence. But that’s got to be a good thing. However, those important stories where the press must protect the names of sources may not be covered for fear of regulation.
From a PR perspective the charter could pose significant changes to media relations. There may be (even) more questions asked by journalists when selling in stories. For example, survey stories may come under extra scrutiny, with PRs experiencing a proper grilling until the quality and reliability of sources is proved. Therefore, it is likely to have an effect on us as an industry as well, but that’s just something we need to be aware of. Unless your agency is constantly selling in dubious news stories from ambiguous sources, this really shouldn’t be an issue.