What actually is the difference between the two draft Royal Charters on press regulation?
All sides of the press regulation debate in the UK seem to be spinning like mad to get public & political support for their preferred solution. I’ve analysed the actual differences between the Conservative and Labour/Liberal Democrat drafts of a proposed Royal Charter.
It is 2013. Here in the UK we are proposing to regulate our mass media with a document that includes the word “website” once, and the words “internet”, “blog” and “social media” not at all, but which starts with the bold all caps salutation “TO ALL TO WHOM THESE PRESENTS SHALL COME, GREETING!”
There is probably a “forsooth”, a “verily” and a “with a hey-nonny-no” tucked in there somewhere too.
Despite it being 2013, the document was issued as a PDF, complete with awkward line breaks and un-parsable bits of text. There is an alternative proposal too, published on Labour’s website. Also a PDF, complete with awkward line breaks and un-parsable bits of text.
So, what with it being 2013, I thought I’d do two things. First of all, here are the documents as plain text — draft Government Royal Charter, and Labour/Liberal Democrat alternative proposal. You can do all kinds of 2013-esque things with them, like stick them in a Wordle or get Siri to read them out in a comedy medieval accent.
I’ve also run the documents though a diff engine. This is a funky computer thing that will actually analyse the differences between two documents. I’ve done that so you can see at a glance the difference between them, without having to wade through the anti-regulation spin of a newspaper industry that had simply years to reform the PCC to make it a decent self-regulatory body for the digital era, and which didn’t.
Here are the main actual textual differences between the two…
[In the images, the draft Government proposal is on the left, the amended Labour/Liberal Democrat version on the right]
The Labour/Liberal Democrat proposal omits the paragraph:
“AND WHEREAS the objectives of any independent regulatory body should be to promote the protection of freedom of expression, protect the public interest, maintain professional standards amongst the press, particularly with regard to the privacy of the individual:”
Labour and the Liberal Democrats have added the requirement that the Recognition panel should report “on any success or failure of the recognition system.”
The two drafts disagree on whether responsibility should be handled by the DCMS or the Department of Justice. Labour/Liberal Democrats favour the latter.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats are more prescriptive about how a self-regulating body can meet the criteria, additionally specifying that there must be criteria of:
“effectiveness, fairness and objectivity of standards, independence and transparency of enforcement and compliance, credible powers and remedies, reliable funding and effective accountability.”
Labour/Liberal Democrats have struck out the clause:
“The Board of the Recognition Panel shall not refuse to grant recognition to a Regulator by reason only of the Regulator making different arrangements for the regulation of different classes of its members, including, but not limited to, differential regulation between those of its members which are regarded as publishing on a national basis and those which are regarded as publishing on a local or regional basis. Provided that in all cases any differential regulation complies with the Recognition Criteria.”
[Having struck out an entire clause, at this point the diffs look visually more dramatic, but this is because the paragraph numbers are now out of synch in this schedule.]
There are some variations about the handling of “cyclical reviews”. The Government draft only appears to apply to the first cyclical review, the Labour/Lib Dem draft applies to all cyclical reviews. The Government draft thinks the reviews should be aimed at discovering systemic abuse of the standards code, whilst the Labour/Lib Dem version asks the body to look for serious breaches of the code. And there is a subtle semantic difference between the Government draft referring to “Exceptional reviews”, which sound rather infrequent, and Labour seeking the body to have powers of “Ad hoc reviews”.
The Labour & Liberal Democrat draft requires the Recognition Panel to also have to inform Parliament and the public under some additional circumstances, i.e. regulation ceasing for a period of time, or significant publishers not taking part in the new body.
“b. inform Parliament and the public as soon as practicable, on the first anniversary of the commencement of this Charter and thereafter annually if:
a. there is no recognized regulator for a continuous period of 3 months after the first anniversary of the commencement of this Charter
b. in the opinion of the Recognition Panel, the system of regulation does not cover all significant news publishers.”
The Lib Dem/Labour re-draft simplifies a clause about who can sit on the board, but adds the concept of a biennial public consultation about the adopted code of standards.
“The standards code, which is the responsibility of the Code Committee, must be approved by the Board or remitted to the Code Committee with reasons. The Code Committee will be appointed by the Board, in accordance with best practices for public appointments, and comprised of equal proportions of independent members, journalists and serving editors. There will be a biennial public consultation by the Code Committee, the results of which must be considered openly with the Board.”
The two drafts disagree about whether public interest has to be “substantial” before action needs to be taken.
A small word change next, but a significant one. Where agreement hasn’t been reached between a publication and an aggrieved party, the Government’s draft says the new body can “require” remedial action. The alternative draft strengthens this to have the body directing “appropriate remedial action”.
The Labour/Liberal Democrat draft makes a similar change insisting that the body should be able to direct the placement of corrections and apologies. The Government draft only says that the new body may require apologies. Notably it does not use the word correction.
The Labour/Lib Dem draft also adds that any investigation procedure must be “simple and credible”.
The final difference in the documents is about conditions of membership. The Labour/Lib Dem draft expands upon the Government publication, explicitly suggesting that it might be possible to make “membership potentially available on different terms for different types of publisher.”
Why do I care about this in so much detail?
Well, I look at the legal definition of who might be covered by this new regulatory body. It includes websites “containing news-related material (whether or not related to a newspaper or magazine)”, where “publication takes place in the United Kingdom or is targeted primarily at an audience in the United Kingdom”, and which contain “opinion about matters relating to the news or current affairs.”
That is a very tenuous and loose definition. It strikes me that because the PCC, which I have long been a critic of, accepted the “one rogue reporter” defence at face value, a chain of events has unfolded that might leave my website under the remit of this new body.
I should probably add at this point that this is a personal blog, and whilst my opinions on the regulation of media are sincerely heart-felt, they do not represent the reviews of present or former clients or employers. Hey-nonny-no.
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