Regulation Schmegulation

So it’s official. The Privy Council has approved the Royal Charter paving the way for a new press regulator. But if no newspapers will sign up to it, what will have been the point?

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Like a spoilt child who can’t get their way, the printed press have once again refused to play ball, crying foul, and – for one senior figure at the Times – even claiming that we are in danger of dismantling 300 years of press freedom. Yes, the press will continue to do exactly as it pleases, all in the name of free speech.

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If only all apologies were as prominent as that one. And if only it didn’t take many years and/or an expensive legal case to get such admissions. It’s almost as if we need a whole new form of regulation.

As I’ve argued before, a Charter really isn’t anything to be scared of – so long as those affected by it generally behave.

Take the BBC’s first Charter of 1927. Much is said of organisation and remuneration (£3,000 per year for the Chairman), but when it comes to the business of newsgathering and journalism, it comes down to this simple mantra :

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Pretty much leaving the BBC and its journalists to their own devices. But enshrined in a Charter, backed by Parliament.

Now, let’s see how that has changed in the most recent version of the Charter issued in 2006. Well curiously, there is no reference to newsgathering at all. But there is a crucial paragraph :

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Ahh yes. Independence. Which applies to all matters, especially editorial. Of course, there are rules limiting what journalists can and can’t do – contained in the BBC Editorial Guidelines. And whilst this sizeable document is often the source of debate and conversation in BBC newsrooms, the guidelines are essentially there to cover matters of media law (by which the press is already bound) and – that crucial word – behaviour.

The proposed Newspapers Charter has also courted controversy because politicians could change the rules. Well yes, they could – just like they do moan when the BBC doesn’t behave as they would like it to. The answer : a robust defence. You know the kind of thing – telling them what you really think.

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Not for the first time, I may not be popular with my print colleagues with this blog. And on the whole, those I regularly see are capable of behaving in a polite and ethical way. But this Charter is far from a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It’s a simple set of rules which allows free speech, investigative journalism and independence – just as we have now. But it adds important safeguards for those who are smeared or treated unfairly. And it forces newspapers to say sorry when they screw up.

I make no apologies for supporting that.

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