Nick Herbert: Leaping over the Rubicon by Royal Decree

Arundel and South Downs MP Nick Herbert
Arundel and South Downs MP Nick Herbert
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Did I miss a meeting this week? It was one of those events you cannot, must not, fail to attend. One where the invitation is not an invitation at all, but a Royal Command. A meeting of Her Majesty’s Privy Council, of which I am honoured to be a member.

I’ve read that the Council was meant to be approving a press charter this week. Was my summons lost in the post? Did the Royal Mail lose my Royal Command?

No. The Privy Council meetings to agree the charter will be attended by a few Cabinet ministers. A number so small you could fit them in a privy.

And so, in a meeting which will last just a few minutes, a meeting in which you only speak when spoken to, a meeting where everyone stands throughout, politicians will succeed in regulating the press.

Now, as well as being a member of the Privy Council, I’m also a member of the House of Commons. And since 1689, we’ve had this idea that, since we’re democratically elected, we should make the laws.

We clipped their unelected Lordships’ wings a century ago. We’re getting increasingly stroppy about foreign institutions bossing us around. We’ve decided that the European Court of Human Rights has stuck its nose too far into our affairs. We proudly stop ministers from waging war.

But when it comes to the giant matter of press freedom, we’ve now forfeited our voice.

It’s true that we licensed this. Earlier this year, we voted to allow punitive damages against the press unless they signed up to an approved regulator. Later, without a vote, we agreed that the royal charter could only be amended by a future vote of the Commons with a two thirds majority.

But I wonder if, in a bid to prevent political interference with the press, we may just have allowed it.

I can’t see that there’s a huge practical difference between the voluntary charter proposed by the press and the royal version. Either way, there’ll be proper redress for members of the public who are wronged by the press. About time, too.

But, there’s a philosophical difference, a chasm, one which politicians in the United States couldn’t cross if they wanted to, because any infringement of a free press there would be unconstitutional.

We said that the Rubicon of statutory press regulation shouldn’t be crossed. I fear we’re leaping over it by Royal Decree.

If you would like to get in touch with me, please write to me at the House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA, or e-mail me at nick@nickherbert.com