Why The Spectator won’t sign the Royal Charter

The Royal Charter gives politicians the power to decide what qualifies as acceptable journalism. They are the wrong people for the job

23 March 2013

Whatever else is said about David Cameron’s hand-ling of press regulation, there can be no doubt that the deal he struck on Monday demonstrated masterful sleight of hand. Just days earlier, his differences with Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg had seemed irreconcilable and the Prime Minister was heading for defeat in the Commons. But then, overnight, everyone united around a compromise: a state regulator which insisted it was no such thing. It was the political equivalent of Magritte’s ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’; Britain’s first piece of legislative surrealism.

The Royal Charter’s ornate, 17th-century language is part of the obfuscation. It begins: ‘To all to whom these presents shall come, greeting!’ That is in a way appropriate: the last time England had state licensing of the media, in 1680, people did speak this way. There follows a 22-page, 111-point charter laying out how the press in Britain is to be governed. Not authored by the government, apparently, but by a monarch by dint of her ‘especial grace, certain knowledge and mere motion’.

At first, the newspapers treated news of the charter with stunned silence. What started out as a sensible attempt to regulate the 21st-century press somehow ended up lost in the 17th century. The language was kept deliberately vague to allow every political party to claim victory: if no one knew what it meant, how could anyone object? But one thing was clear: a cabal of politicians had gathered in an office until 2.30a.m. on a Monday morning to stitch up a deal, with the campaign group Hacked Off in the next room. They were acting on a shared premise: that the press would at last be theirs to regulate.

It was Nigel Lawson, a former editor of this magazine, who observed that the most dangerous moments in our democracy come when all parties agree. Consensus means no proper scrutiny, and that glaring flaws go unnoticed. So it is with the Royal Charter. It is deeply illiberal, proposing a new system of ‘exemplary damages’ for non-licensed publications that may yet prove against European law. Worse, it solves none of the problems that have so dogged the British press and appalled the public, and by invoking the most egregious examples of press intrusion, and the disturbing notion of victims’ justice, the political class is attempting an audacious power grab. It’s true that the voicemail hacking, the theft of Kate McCann’s diary, the policemen taking bribes from tabloid journalists were sickening abuses of press power. But they were all violations of existing law, which is why scores of journalists have so far been arrested. Not a single proposal from the Royal Charter would have helped the McCanns — or, indeed, Hugh Grant, Max Mosley, Sienna Miller or the other celebrities who (we now know) funded the Hacked Off campaign. Throughout this jamboree, there has been no real connection made between the problems outlined and the solution proposed.

Ed Miliband rightly pointed out that there has been a ‘pattern of decades and decades where politicians promised to act on wrongdoing by the press, and failed to do so’. In fact, it goes back for centuries: the press would err, and politicians would attempt to seize power over it.

The idea of statutory press regulation was proposed in 1952, and The Spectator was implacably opposed. ‘Everyone who really understands what freedom of the press means and cares about it,’ we argued, ‘must resist such a proposal to the uttermost.’ This was the consensus until very recently. Five years ago even the Labour-dominated culture, media and sport committee agreed, and declared that ‘statutory regulation of the press is a hallmark of authoritarianism and risks undermining democracy’. On Monday, 530 MPs voted for this statutory regulation of the press. Just 13 voted against.

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This seismic shift in parliamentary opinion can only partly be explained by the hacking scandal. The debate on Monday exposed just how raw the wounds from the expenses scandal still are. Honourable members were heard recalling the fate of colleagues ‘who were turned over by the press’ as if they too were ‘victims’ of a cruel, intrusive media. H.L. Mencken said journalist is to politician as dog is to lamppost. This week has been about the revenge of the lamppost. Perhaps this is why, from the beginning, David Cameron admitted that he would not be able to control his party on this issue. When he summoned the Fleet Street editors around the table at 10 Downing Street on the publication of the Leveson report, he said he wanted to protect the press but that he needed to assuage his baying backbenchers. Oliver Letwin, who the press have had much fun mocking over the years, was introduced as the grand fixer. Letwin told the editors that they could come up with self-regulation by all means, but it would have to follow Leveson’s recommendations ‘to the centimetre’. It was an instruction, and it was a sign that the tables were turning. Politicians were now in charge.

Soon after, I attended a breakfast held by newspaper editors in a private room of the the Delaunay restaurant in London, where James Harding, the now-departed editor of the Times, whizzed through the Leveson recommendations. To everyone’s amazement, nearly all of us agreed. The press was prepared to implement what Lord Justice Leveson wanted: up-front corrections, a new code of conduct, and fines of up to £1 million. Cameron’s hunch was right: Leveson’s substantive proposals could be introduced without the coercive hand of the state. It seemed, then, as if press freedom could be saved.

But as talks proceeded, it became clear that Mr Cameron was almost alone in his hope that the essential liberty of the media would be preserved. Hacked Off was arguing for state regulation — well, of course it was. Hacked Off was spun out of a group known as the ‘Media Standards Trust’ and its aim has always been to create a world where the press would be governed by ex-lawyers, professors of journalism and other worthies. Their ideas seemed acceptable to Letwin. He was much taken by the fantasy press regulation bill drafted by Hacked Off, and often waved it in the faces of visiting newspapermen. ‘This makes sense to me!’ he’d say, challenging them to come up with something better. It became clear that he did want government regulation — several pages of it.

The concept of a Royal Charter is a typical Letwin fudge. He is a charming man who talks as if he belongs to another century — although it’s never quite clear which one. He is unworldly enough to have let a burgler into his house at 5a.m. — and seems not have spotted the problem with the idea of expanding regulation to encompass the internet. Even Lord Leveson stopped short of this, but the Royal Charter proposes to license (and, if necessary, inflict exemplary damages) on any ‘relevant publishers’. This could include blogs.

The idea that politicians may be able to regulate the internet too was an unexpected bonus for some. In Monday’s debate Tom Watson, a Labour MP who in his spare time has written a book about his pursuit of Rupert Murdoch, was delighted that ‘at this late hour, I hear that the charter extends its remit to internet publishing’. He made suggestions as to how it ought to be categorised, and even hinted at state subsidy for websites that politicians approved of. MPs, he said, have a ‘responsibility to give something back to journalism’ and should find ‘imaginative ways to support investigative journalism’.

It is just as the advocates of press freedom feared: politicians cannot stop themselves. Give them control over print and they’ll come back for digital. Next they will want to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ journalists, to reward their friends and punish their enemies. Just a whiff of this sort of power has intoxicated Alex Salmond, who commissioned a review which recommended that Scotland make licensing of the press compulsory. His devolved government would license bloggers, a handy tool in the run-up to the 2014 referendum. He was forced to drop the plans after they caused an uproar, but his intention was clear.

Perhaps the general public think state regulation is a good thing; that hacks should be restrained by people who aren’t themselves in the media. But what may not be appreciated is the insidious influence politicians already try to exert over the press: the quiet words over dinner, the phone calls made to editors, myself included. I have been asked to chastise ‘irresponsible’ reporters and remove articles that politicians find insulting from the website. On minister called to ask if I was aware that a Spectator journalist had been rude about him without first seeking the advice of his spin doctor. It’s as if MPs have lost sight of what a free press is for.

When the public think of a ‘bad journalist’, they imagine a hack who plagiarises, lies, or in some other way breaks the law. When a politician thinks of a bad journalist, more often than not he imagines someone who has criticised him, unfairly in his opinion. So of course there’s political lip-smacking about an era in which politicians have the power to define what is acceptable journalism. Or, as Labour’s Jim Sheridan put it on Tuesday, expel the ‘parasitical elements’ within the press. But this is an attack on freedom.

The attack is coming close to succeeding not because Fleet Street is so strong, but because it is so weak. Newspapers have been haemorrhaging sales and influence for years — and for many editors the pressing issue is not liberty but survival. On current trends, the Independent, Financial Times and Guardian will have all vanished from newsagents by the end of the decade. All three had declared they would be happy to join a system of state licensing, and still want to make the Royal Charter work.

There is another way. Cameron’s Royal Charter is not compulsory: rather it is like a strange new club looking for members. We do not have to join. The press could decide that, after due consideration, we will set up our own genuine self-regulatory system, along the lines agreed at the Delaunay breakfast. This would be perfectly legal. Perhaps the cap on potential damages could be increased to £2 million. We at The Spectator would happily sign up to what would still be the toughest regulation in the western world.

Last year, Cameron warned that politicians cannot be trusted with media regulation. He has, alas, proved himself right.

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Show comments
  • Stroudy

    What a sad day for this nation. Cameron will go down in history as the PM who began fixing the shackles of state control on to the limbs of the press. I hope that many titles will follow the Spectator’s brave lead.

  • 1965doc

    Simply appalling. Nelson is quite right.
    For more than 20 years this country has been becoming ever more illiberal, with surveillance cameras and secret courts, and the previously proposed ID cards. Politicians are all trying to make the populace responsible to them rather than them responsible to US.

  • Charlie_Mansell

    Just an observation but this is a ROYAL Charter – not an act – that says:

    NOW KNOW YE that We by Our Prerogative Royal of Our especial grace, certain

    knowledge and mere motion do by this Our Charter for Us, Our Heirs and Successors

    will, ordain and declare as follows:

    1.1. There shall be a body corporate known as the Recognition Panel


    I would imagine the Spectator is a bit of a fan of ‘The Crown in Parliament’ and does not support the ‘Royal Prerogative’ being abolished however it currently operates.

    Do I detect the Spectator, in refusing to support a Royal Charter is being a bit ‘Roundhead’ here?:) Or perhaps it should explain its new policy towards picking and choosing Royal Charters it likes or dislikes?:)

  • http://twitter.com/Bitethehand1 Bitethehand

    Great article.

    You say:

    “On current trends, the Independent, Financial Times and Guardian will have all vanished from newsagents by the end of the decade. All three had declared they would be happy to join a system of state licensing, and still want to make the Royal Charter work.”

    Well the Guardian is ahead of the game on this in introducing its own censorship of its Comment is Free articles. See:

    “The Guardian’s Comment is Free – censoring the historical record – airbrushing the online version”


    Small wonder the paper’s editor has yet to follow your example.

  • 72Princeton

    We can but hope that News International, Associated and the Telegraph group have similar courage. If they don’t they will greatly hasten their own demise. We are governed by a generation of MPs who know nothing of history. Freedom is not something they grant the Press as a favour on condition it behaves properly. It is a right, an essential part of a functioning democracy, which is why America is so shocked by what Parliament has done.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jon-Stone/594948482 Jon Stone

      You people are like a stuck record. You keep repeating the same blather about ‘freedom’ without pausing for one second to think about what it really means, how complicated it is to balance, and how the new legislation might actually work to *preserve* it where it counts. Billionaires who previously used our libel laws to gag the press now have to use the same arbitration system as everyone else – it’s cheaper for the press than years of lawsuits, so theoretically easier for them to defend themselves when they’re in the right.

      On the other hand, it makes it easier for the average person – who previously had no means of redress – to actually have a fair punt at taking on the press barons when they distort and invent at the behest of their owners.

      This regulation has a huge measure of support from the public, because anyone who hasn’t been brainwashed by the efforts of the right-wing press can see clearly what’s going on, how it isn’t ‘state regulation’, how at least something along these lines is necessary.

      There are dangers too, but in a typical demonstration of just how asinine much of the press of this country is, this journalist and many others who oppose it have failed to engage with the real potential dangers, favouring a blanket of lies and obfuscation about what’s actually happening.

      Anyone crying the death of freedom about this has no idea what freedom really entails – it’s just a dogma to you, a mantra to repeat while ignoring all the untidy implications. In fact, I’d go so far as to say you’re enemies of freedom, since you abuse the word so much in your banal invectives.

      • 72Princeton

        Banal invective? Pots and kettles. I waded through your own banalities to find a substantive point and I think, finally, I found one.

        It simply IS state regulation. Ask Labour and the Liberal-Democrats, who drafted it. Perhaps you’ve been taken in by Cameron’s spin.

        What does “freedom” of the Press mean to you? A Press that’s ever-so-slightly controlled by law? A Press that could be much more firmly controlled in future?

        What “you people” are unable or unwilling to understand is that as far as changing the behaviour of the Press is concerned none of this is necessary. Newsrooms are unrecognisable from where they were two years ago. They changed the moment the police began doing their job properly.

        As for having a “huge measure of support from the public”, so does capital punishment. Up for that?

        • Democritus

          The law is there to underpin the new complaints body and to guarantee it’s independence from both government and the press. It is not a press law as it is not compulsory for any publisher to join.

          You state that the press has changed over the last two years and if true that’s great. As this new body will replace the PCC, it will carry on the work of investigating complaints, If the press has cleaned up it’s act then they have nothing to worry about. Why are some against a complaints body where the rules of conduct are decided by the press (as they were before)? The only difference is those who are members will have to abide by those rules rather than ignoring them as happened in the past.

          • Bickers

            you clearly don’t undertand how a free press is our only bulwark (other than revolution) against duplicitous politicians

        • Baron

          72Princeton, sir, you absolutely right, in the past, the Commons saw it as their job to limit the power of the Government and its agencies, not boost it. Someone should remind them of it.

          You wrong on capital punishment though. We should bring it back. Capital punishment on statute books saves lives.

  • http://maxzygo.com/ Max Zygo

    I think you will find that there is a Titan of British politics, upright, steadfast and true, who will keep us safe from the encroachments of the state.

    Perhaps he will take this as his motto:

    – “If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, so be it. I am ready for the fight. The fight against falsehood and those who peddle it.”

    Here he is back in 2010, with big plans.

    How is it all working out so far?


    I have spent my whole political life fighting to open up politics. So let me make one thing very clear: This government is going to be unlike any other. This government is going to transform our politics so the state has far less control over you, and you have far more control over the state. This government is going to break up concentrations of power and hand power back to people, because that is how we build a society that is fair. This government is going to persuade you to put your faith in politics once again.

    I’m not talking about a few new rules for MPs. Not the odd gesture or gimmick to make you feel a bit more involved. I’m talking about the most significant programme of empowerment by a British government since the great reforms of the 19th Century. The biggest shake up of our democracy since 1832, when the Great Reform Act redrew the boundaries of British democracy…


    Big, sweeping change. Not incremental, not bit by bit. Our democracy has suffered at the hands of encroaching centralisation and secrecy for decades. Take citizens’ rights: eroded by the quiet proliferation of laws that increase surveillance, quash dissent, limit freedom. Take executive authority: consistently increased by successive administrations to the point that we now have a neutered parliament and government that enjoys almost untrammelled control – over precisely the people who are meant to keep it in check.


    So, no, incremental change will not do. It is time for a wholesale, big bang approach to political reform. And that’s what this government will deliver.


    This will be a government that is proud when British citizens stand up against illegitimate advances of the state. That values debate, that is unafraid of dissent. That’s why we’ll remove limits on the rights to peaceful protest. It’s why we’ll review libel laws so that we can better protect freedom of speech.

    And as we tear through the statute book, we’ll do something no government ever has:

    We will ask you which laws you think should go. Because thousands of criminal offences were created under the previous government; yet taking people’s freedom away didn’t make our streets safer. Obsessive lawmaking simply makes criminals out of ordinary people. So, we’ll get rid of the unnecessary laws, and once they’re gone, they won’t come back. Because we will introduce a mechanism to block pointless new criminal offences.

    • Democritus

      Wasn’t he at the same time making some sort of pledge to students about fees?

  • http://www.facebook.com/anthony.gerard.900 Anthony Gerard

    When is the Telegraph and The Spectator going to start reporting about the dealings of thei owners, The Barclay Brothers ?

    Any journalist who questions the tax affairs of the
    Barclay twins is immediately threatened by lawyers.

    Murdoch’s Media elite believed that they were above the law.

    Free Press – rubbish. None of these hacks ever hold the Barclay Brothers, Pornographer Richard Desmond and or Rupert Murdoch to account.

    • The_greyhound

      What a foolish remark.

      Freedom is freedom from state censorship, something we have enjoyed, bar the odd world war, for three hundred years. It doesn’t matter whether this paper or that covers any particular issue or story : what matters is that they can do so. A free press is the sum of its parts. And in case you are trying to accuse the Telegraph or the Spectator of being selective, compare it to the unreal and highly censored Guardian : any story that doesn’t fit the message simply isn’t there. If it were left to Leveson and his captive press we would never have known about the murderous failure of Stafford Hospital and the crisis that now ripples out from it. The Guardian and the Independent can scarcely be bothered to mention it.

      • Democritus

        What a foolish remark.
        The press still retains all the same freedoms it did before. Except the ability to lean on and suppress it’s own complaints body. Where a publisher breaches the code laid down by the press there will be the case for investigation, arbitration and redress, just like there was before except they can’t ignore the new body unless they don’t mind paying exemplary costs in court (should they be found guilty).

        • The_greyhound

          The press do not have the same freedoms. You are simply blinded by your dogmatic opinions. The Spectator, by declining to sign up to state censorship, exposes itself to punitive damages (not costs), and is liable for costs even it wins an action.

          You clearly don’t even understand what the House of Commons has voted for.

          • Democritus

            I fully understand. If a publisher refuses to go through arbitration with the new body then the courts can award exemplary costs and yes they will be liable for their own and the complainants costs.

            If the complainant refuses to use arbitration it works the other way. If a publisher is unable to use the arbitration service exemplary costs cannot be awarded.

          • http://twitter.com/elainedecoulos Elaine Decoulos

            Actually, if you carefully read the amendments to the Crime and Courts Bill (a rather strange place for them, considering there is currently a Defamation Bill in Parliament), the increase in costs and damages do not automatically kick in if the publisher does not belong to the new regulatory body. It only says…they MAY be awarded.

            The other strange part of it is the definition of ‘news-related material’. That’s the only content for which these amendments apply. Why don’t they apply to all content published? I am sure there is a very good reason and Hacked Off knows and is not telling.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Smith/1386738275 Andrew Smith

    The three statist / leftist newspapers you mention are unlikely to fold because the pl,itical class will see to it. A few more deals like the one the Guardian did with the BBC and their finances will be OK. It would not surprise me if approved newspapers started to receive state subsidy, just as approved political groups do from the EU and no doubt also in some other unsavoury states.

    But then, what I have just written is probably not approved by the political class and soon it may become actionable.

    We may have to find out whether these regulations are legal restrictions on the press by a strange route. Some businesses insure against damages claims but if they have to pay up according to the new law (sorry!! Charter), the insurers would likely treat tit as a fine which would not be insured and nor might it be tax deductible.

  • kyalami

    It is truly appalling that both this government and its predecessor have trampled on the liberty of people and the press.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jon-Stone/594948482 Jon Stone

      It would be, if that’s what they’d done, and this article wasn’t the usual disingenuous rubbish peddled to the easily led.

      • kyalami

        And since it isn’t, it is.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.thornton.1961 David Thornton

    I would have cancelled my subscription if the Speccie had supported any other position.

  • Democritus

    So the Spectator says no to the new complaints body?
    Well paradoxically this proves that freedom the press is still intact. As it isn’t compulsory to join the new body the Spectator is exercising their freedom to not join. All a rather large storm in a small tea cup wouldn’t you say?

    • Tim Reed

      …except for those smaller news outlets (local papers, for example) who won’t be able to risk the financial fallout from the possibility of bearing both the costs and damages of any claim against them, and so will feel forced to sign up reluctantly. They won’t have much of a choice.

      • Democritus

        But smaller publishers rarely commit libel ,unless they have a lot to gain. A small publisher can’t afford court action any more than 90% of the public can. It’s a red herring put up by those national papers who are sued weekly for the trash they print.

    • therealguyfaux

      And Hobson’s customers were free not to accept the horse he was giving them, weren’t they?

      • Democritus

        Quite. They could have used shanks’s pony or the local bus.

  • mountolive

    I think it is worth noting that Hasan, through the sentence “We cannot credibly fight Islamophobia while making excuses for Judaeophobia”, neatly attempts to create a fallacious equivalency: the entirely rational fear of Islam with the wholly irrational fear of Jews.

  • dalai guevara

    I must agree – what is currently on the table will just not satisfy anyone, will it?

    When we begin to reflect on Leveson and conclude that he has in fact entirely diverted our attention from the actions of the police (and politicians), and focused solely on the press, we begin to feel that this entire affair is oddly lopsided.

    This does not imply that a ‘do nothing’ option with regard to an ethical code of conduct for the press would be satisfactory – all it does is highlight that the complexity of the conundrum is far larger than many care to accept.

  • retundario

    Tom Watson pondering on the state providing “imaginative ways to support investigative journalism” is just absolutely awful. I really object to him being allowed in Parliament

    • therealguyfaux

      Would this be Tom Watson living out his boyhood fantasy of being the Fat Controller?

      • bengeo

        Mr Pickles, has that accolade already.

  • Baron

    Good on you, Fraser, you stick to it, entrusting the politicians with the freedom of the press is akin to appointing a he-goat a chief gardener. An absolute absurdity.

  • http://www.facebook.com/anthony.gerard.900 Anthony Gerard

    When The Spectator going to start reporting about the dealings of its owners, The Barclay Brothers ?

    Any journalist who questions the tax affairs of the Barclay twins is immediately threatened by lawyers.

    Murdoch’s Media elite believed that they were above the law.

    Free Press – rubbish. None of these hacks ever hold the Barclay Brothers,
    Pornographer Richard Desmond and or Rupert Murdoch to account.

    Britain’s ” free press” is controlled by a handful of foreign Billionaires.

    • Democritus

      And nobody answers! That should tell you something. They are all whining about press freedom (we both no that’s a laugh when all the main papers are owned by a few billionaires). This new body will be independent from parliament (our democratically elected MPs) and also from the press barons (elected by nobody and a scourge on our country). It will follow rules set down by the press and investigate wrong doing and….wait for it….be able to impose fines to those that break the rules set down by the press. It is all really terrible, the press have a right to stamp their feet over this, how dare anyone insist that the press ,abide by their own rules of conduct!

    • retundario

      Supporting this legislation from your point-of-view is typical left-wing drudgery, in that you have identified a problem (the media is a medium for the political views of a few owners/state employees), and you want to redress this problem by further narrowing it (so that the media only becomes a medium for the views of the state, as in many other countries).

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Daryl-Stafford/1361026536 Daryl Stafford

    If Milliband and Harman along with a load of Lefties and Lovies are keen supporters anyone with an ounce of nouse must know it’s a really bad idea. I hope that The Times follows your lead in resisting this.

  • keepingcalm

    Who can trust politicians to decide what we should be allowed to know? We need to be exposed to the misdeeds of the rich and powerful to keep at least the semblance of democracy. Let anyone expose anything they find out and let our laws take care of criminals and liars.

  • Louis Crosier

    And we should fight it with every ounce of our english being

  • rtj1211

    Your coverage of HS2 is the clearest reason you refuse to sign any regulation of the Press: you must remain free to print categorical lies without your careers being ended and your magazine shut down.

    If a Minister said one thing like the lies you have printed this week about HS2, they would be out of public life for life.

    It is about time that the same stringent standards of booting out unethical journalists, editors and publishers was instigated in this country.

    Unethical means printing lies, being shown that they are lies and then printing them again.

    I ask Mr Fraser Nelson to confirm that he will apply precisely such a standard to the Spectator and will eliminate in their entirety lying co-ordinated blog campaigns as well.

    If he won’t, he adds no value to society. On the contrary, he is an instigator of-, supporter of- and appeaser of pure evil.

    If you have a case based on the facts, you will win.

    If you have to cheat to win, ‘British society’ says you are out.

    You had better do unto yourselves, what you would have done to others.

    Get on with it.

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