Cameron warns UK press: sign up to royal charter or else
PM says UK press risks ‘hideous statutory regulation’ in future if it declines to seek recognition under terms of new royal charter.
David Cameron has warned the press that it runs the risk of facing “hideous statutory regulation” in the future if the Independent Press Standards Organisation declines to seek recognition under the terms of the new royal charter.
In an interview with the Spectator’s editor, Fraser Nelson,, a strong campaigner against the royal charter, Cameron said a “less liberal, less enlightened government” of the future could impose statutory controls unless the press acted now.
The prime minister spoke out a few weeks after 90% of national newspapers and most regional publishers announced that they would join the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso). The body, whose members include the Telegraph Media Group, Associated Newspapers, News UK, Trinity Mirror and Northern & Shell, is declining to seek recognition from a panel that is to be established under the terms of the royal charter.
Ipso believes the recognition panel, to be set up by the former permanent secretary at the Home Office, Sir David Normington, who is now commissioner for public appointments, amounts to an unacceptable level of state control. Cameron, who agreed the terms of the royal charter with Labour and the Liberal Democrats, says the new system places the government at arm’s length from the body.
The royal charter can only be amended by a two-thirds majority vote in both houses of parliament. The recognition panel will not regulate the press but will assess every few years whether a regulatory body, which signs up, is carrying out its functions in line with the principles laid down in Lord Justice Leveson’s report into the press. Once a regulatory body is recognised by the panel, section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 would be triggered meaning that publishers outside an officially recognised regulatory body could suffer financial penalties in legal actions.
Cameron told the Spectator: “I believe there’s a great opportunity here to put this difficult and painful issue to bed. If the press set up their regulator I hope, in time, they will make that regulator compliant with – will be able to then seek recognition under – the charter recognition body.
“If that then happens, we’ll have in place a system that I think will settle this issue because we would have achieved what Leveson wanted which is independent self-regulation by the press, but not marking its own homework, having itself checked, and only having the body checked as it were by the charter.”
The prime minister denied he was adopting a tougher stance than Maria Miller, the culture secretary, who suggested on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 recently that nothing else needed to happen if Ipso was seen to work. Cameron told the Spectator: “What she’s saying is that it’s now down to the press. We’ve done our bit, we have put in place a royal charter. We’ve given you, the press, an opportunity to put this issue to bed I would think for 50 to 100 years if you want to.
“Now, if you choose to set up your self-regulator but say ‘we’re not going to seek recognition’, that is your choice. Personally I think that is a mistake because you’re missing the opportunity to settle this and you’re risking that some future, less liberal, less enlightened government at the time of the next press crisis will hitch you with some hideous statutory regulation which I prevented.”
The prime minister told Nelson the press could walk away from the recognition panel if it felt a government was restricting freedom of expression. He told the Spectator editor: “If ever that happens, the press can say: ‘We’re no longer seeking recognition.’ It is a voluntary system.”
But Cameron was criticised for warning of tighter regulation if the new body declines to seek recognition from the panel. Kirsty Hughes, chief executive of Index on Censorship, said: “David Cameron should be looking at why his royal charter is damaging to press freedom. This is a point of fundamental principle and the press should stick to their guns. You don’t walk away from a fundamental principle just because someone threatens that it could get even worse.”
Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP for Harwich, said: “I think this proposed royal charter is indefensible and it’s bang out of order to try to defend it on the basis that a future government might do something even more indefensible. The press in this country hasn’t been forced to publish under licence for centuries and it would be a massive black mark against this government if they push ahead with this folly.”
The Spectator declined to print Cameron’s remarks in the Christmas edition of the magazine, which ran a lengthy interview with the prime minister. Nelson instead blogged his comments on the press early on Boxing Day.
The Guardian and the Observer have reserved judgment on whether to join Ipso.