30 Oct 2013

Royal charter signed off

Nick Clegg‘s been to see the Queen. He had Jeremy Hunt, Maria Miller and Lord McNally for company at the meeting of the privy council (which he is senior member of as the lord president of the council). The meeting at the palace lasted about 30 minutes or so. The royal charter was the only item on the agenda. It’s now been signed off.

All this on the very day the phone-hacking trial starts its progress through the Old Bailey. But that’s not the only coincidental timing today. There’s a key deadline in the royal charter business that was etched into the document at the last minute today. If no self-regulatory body is deemed to be up to snuff and worthy of the recognition panel’s approval, the whole matter of what happens next comes back to parliament a year after the recognition panel has been set up. Here’s the government note sent out tonight:

Scheme of Recognition (Schedule 2, para 10(b)(i)): has been updated so that the timing for the Board of the Recognition Panel to inform parliament and the public if there is no recognised regulator should run from the date that the Recognition Panel is in a position to accept applications for recognition. This requirement has also been amended so that the obligation arises once a year from that date if there is no recognised regulator.

Working estimates amongst those involved in the royal charter are that the recognition panel probably won’t be set up until about the summer of 2014. Hey presto, one year from that takes you to summer of 2015 … just after the date of the next general election. The other change: the recognition panel (with newspaper representation on it) must give unanimous approval to any changes to the royal charter in the future – that would be on top of the need for a two-thirds vote in both the Commons and the Lords.

Some of the biggest circulation newspapers tried to stop the Queen signing off on the charter today with a last minute high court injunction. They couldn’t be clearer that they have no intention of coming anywhere near the recognition body set up by the government-backed royal charter because they think it reeks of state control of the press.

So why are some supporters of the royal charter convinced it will eventually work? The answer lies in the carrots and sticks woven into all this. If you’re in a self-regulator recognised by the recognition panel spawned by the royal charter then you have access to a cheaper arbitration of disputes outside the courts. If you’re in a self-regulation scheme not recognised by the recognition panel set up by the royal charter, then under the crime and courts act 2013, you risk exemplary damages if you lose a case and you will usually have to pay a complainant’s costs even if you, the newspaper, win the case.

The paper inside the royal charter’s circle of trust may even get its own costs paid for by the complainant if the complainant doesn’t at least try the arbitration route first.

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