UK Politics

Tory plans for royal press charter attacked

Lord Norman Fowler
Image caption Lord Fowler was a minister under Margaret Thatcher and John Major

Conservative plans to set up a press regulator backed by royal charter have been attacked by a former Tory cabinet minister.

Lord Fowler said the plans could lead to more government involvement in the press than statutory underpinning, as proposed by Lord Justice Leveson.

Labour said a royal charter would put too much power in government hands.

But ministers said the Culture Secretary Maria Miller was committed to a "non-statutory" route.

Royal charters are formal documents that have been used to establish and lay out the terms of organisations including the BBC and Bank of England.

They cannot be changed without government approval, so it is thought could safeguard a new press watchdog from unilateral changes to its terms by the press.

However, Lord Fowler questioned whether the plan for a royal charter could actually lead to greater state involvement in the press.

During a debate in the House of Lords on a report into press ethics by Lord Justice Leveson, Lord Fowler, a former cabinet minister and chair of the Tory party who worked as a journalist before entering politics, said phone hacking had been the "worst press scandal since the second world war".

He said it had shown that a "deeply rotten culture" in parts of the press and he backed Lord Justice Leveson's proposal for a new regulator underpinned by legislation.

Reward or punishment?

David Cameron has voiced "misgivings" about the plan and the alternative proposal for a royal charter is being considered as part of cross-party talks on how to implement the report's recommendations.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats both back the Leveson proposal.

"As for the government's apparently favoured solution of setting a new body under a royal charter, I cannot decide whether that is intended as a reward for the press for past conduct or a punishment for what they have done," Lord Fowler said.

"A punishment because what a royal charter does is to hand over control to the Privy Council and as the Privy Council's own guidance states 'this effectively means a significant degree of government regulation of the affairs of the body'. Why the press should want this is entirely beyond me."

Labour media spokeswoman Baroness Jones of Whitchurch also expressed concerns about the plan.

She said: "We are not convinced that it is right to bypass Parliament on an issue where fundamental rights are at stake. Also, it seems inappropriate to deploy the prestige of the monarch in a controversial role where intervention might be necessary."

'No third way'

She said her party remained willing to force a Commons vote on proposals for a new system in response to the Leveson Inquiry if cross-party talks faltered and stressed the need for progress before the end of January.

Business minister Viscount Younger of Leckie insisted Culture Secretary Maria Miller would "not shy away" from a press law as a last resort if a new system of self-regulation could not be made to work, but was "committed to a non-statutory route".

He said: "The prime minister has said he does not believe that statutory legislation is necessary to achieve the principles outlined by Leveson.

"However, the secretary of state for culture, media and sport has been equally clear that if the industry does not deliver a tough, new, independent self-regulatory system then she will not shy away from going down the statutory legislation route. This would be the only option left."

During the debate, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission Lord Hunt of Wirral said he was "optimistic" the media industry could deliver its own regulatory structure without the need for legislation and with "comprehensive sign-up" from across the industry by the middle of 2013.

He said: "It is clear to me that the industry now understands that between the existing and inadequate system of self-regulation and what Leveson proposes there is no acceptable third way."

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