UK Politics

Lessons from history: Can royalty guarantee a free press?

Rowan Atkinson as Edmund Blackadder and Miranda Richardson as Queen Elizabeth I

Once derided as the "Blackadder" solution, the idea that a royal charter is a good guarantee of press freedom is now shared by all parties in Westminster. But does history back them up?

"The real problem with the royal charter process is that it is the most autocratic tool in any government's weaponry," Labour MP Chris Bryant recently argued.

"I thought we had a civil war to get away from the Queen's prerogative," former Labour Deputy Prime Minister Lord Prescott has said.

Both were scathing about the plan to establish, by royal charter, a body that will decide whether the press is being properly regulated in future.

The Privy Council Office, which oversees the administration of chartered bodies, appears to support their qualms. "Once incorporated by royal charter a body surrenders significant aspects of the control of its internal affairs," it warns on its website. "Amendments to charters can be made only with the agreement of the Queen in council."

"It requires some suspension of disbelief to take seriously the notion that... this device be used to regulate the British press," wrote the Guardian in an editorial in February. "From Beaverbrook to Blackadder in one bound."

But how involved will the monarch, or her ministers, be?

"In practice, the Privy Council is a very light-touch regulator," says Keith Lawrey, a legal expert from the Foundation for Science and Technology who has advised a number of organisations on how to apply for a royal charter.

The government of the day "would only intervene if somebody complained that a chartered corporation has misbehaved", he believes. "This has never happened in recent times."

But chartered bodies have regulated various professions for centuries, and they have not always enjoyed complete autonomy.

One of the earliest royal charters was obtained by the Guild of Saddlers.

Getting a charter was then the only legal way to own property collectively: London's saddlers wanted to club together to buy a hall, and were prepared to pay handsomely for the privilege.

Monarchs distributed charters with a keen eye on the bottom line. "It cost the Saddlers £60 - a very large sum at that time," writes Kingsley Oliver, historian of the saddlers.

"Large sums were required on loan and were seldom repaid," grumbles the official history of the Grocers' Company, which was first chartered in 1428.

In the early 17th Century, the saddlers' "wardens naively loaned a further £100 to the king, 'on the privy seal'. It was not until much later that they learned that the phrase was a euphemism for a gift," adds Oliver.

Garbled

The accession of a new monarch to the throne could mean the guilds were obliged to invest in new charters just to confirm their existing rights.

But their largesse gradually bought them increasing power.

"The ruling bodies of the gilds wielded an actual jurisdiction over their members, punishing them with the same punishments that a feudal lord imposed upon his serf," writes historian Tom Girtin. "The Weavers' and the Fishmongers' Companies, for instance... paid a yearly sum to the Exchequer for the privilege of holding their own courts."

They used this power to uphold standards in their own trades.

The company of grocers, for instance, deployed "garblers" to sift through batches of imported spices, to check their purity (hence the modern meaning of the word garbled). Saddlers declared by their peers to be using sheep's leather, deemed to be an inferior way to finish a saddle, were slapped with hefty fines.

The cutlers, who for centuries produced all manner of bladed instruments, were granted the right to seize "false cutlery" on sale in the City by James I in their 1607 charter.

The guilds used their growing power to limit access to London's markets to the well-connected and well-trained.

For example, skinners, or traders in pelts, were by a 14th Century royal decree unable to market their goods "unless on the security of six reputable men of that mistery".

Around that time, the cutlers claimed that "foreigners" were largely to blame for poor quality merchandise: "When it is remembered that a 'foreigner' was not simply an alien but anyone, Londoner or otherwise, who was not free of the City - a freedom gained through membership of a mistery - the extent of their power to control the trade will be appreciated," adds Girtin.

'Controlling votes'

Some monarchs must have wondered if they were giving away too much power with their charters, and attempted to cut the companies down to size.

Officials from the mercers' company, whose members originally dealt in luxury fabric, were summoned before the Privy Council in 1561 to explain "to explain why the price of silk was so high", according to historian Ian Doolittle. They were instructed to charge less.

King Charles II accused the City of London, itself a chartered body, in 1683 of petitioning him disrespectfully and imposing an illegal tax to aid reconstruction efforts after the Great Fire. The City was at that time represented by four MPs in the House of Commons.

He ordered all of the City's livery companies to surrender their charters and buy new ones giving him the power, for the first time, to hand pick their top officials, "all with a view, of course, to controlling votes at... parliamentary elections", adds Doolittle.

"As he saw it, the Whigs were snapping at his privileges," writes Antonia Fraser in her biography of Charles II. "By calling in the charters, he might provide a more satisfactory selection of Parliamentary candidates."

Some 200 years later, Queen Victoria set up a commission to scrutinise the powers of the guilds once again.

A majority "concluded that the livery companies were 'instruments of City and royal control of trade and industry'... As such, their resources were at the disposal of the state", writes Oliver.

But a dissenting minority argued that "the livery companies were private bodies [whose] independence was guaranteed by their charters".

The commission's conclusions were ignored, and the minority view has since become mainstream.

'Foolish'

Modern professional bodies established by charter believe they act independently, not just of the state - but of their own interests too.

"Chartered status... means putting the public interest first, even if this means before members' interests," testified the Institute of Chartered Accountants for England and Wales to a parliamentary inquiry in 2012.

"For example, this means campaigning for simplification of the tax system in the public's interest, even though a complex tax system creates more work for accountants."

The Royal Institute for Chartered Surveyors and the Royal Society of Chemists both added similar sentiments.

The press regulation charter will include a requirement that a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament will need to vote in favour of a change to its text before it can happen - a safeguard that is to be reiterated in legislation passed by Parliament.

"At first, I was wholly opposed to the idea," Mr Bryant reminded the Commons on Monday. But now he believes that this "statutory underpinning" will "protect the charter, the House and everybody else from ministers".

But perhaps the strongest disincentive against aspiring future meddlers with the charter on press regulation is the rough ride that would surely ensue in the newspapers.

In the words of Labour's spokesman in the upper House, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, such a course of action would take "guts" and might ultimately prove to be "foolish".