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The Sovereign's Dilemma

28/04/2013 22:21 BST | Updated 28/06/2013 10:12 BST

Soon, Her Majesty The Queen will have to decide between two rival drafts of a Royal Charter. Could this be a first in our ancient history?

We are talking, of course, about press regulation. In the red corner, there is the grubby deal, cooked up in the early hours of 18 March in Ed Miliband's office. Present: a motley collection of politicians from the three main parties, along with pro-Leveson lobbyists, Hacked Off, spawn of the Media Standards Trust, founded by Judge Leveson's principal adviser, Sir David Bell. Absent: any representative of the press. You don't have to be an editor to detect a rancid whiff of conspiracy

The politicians' draft Royal Charter is supposed to be a wizard wheeze to entrench "voluntary independent self-regulation", Judge Leveson's Orwellian oxymoron, without crossing David Cameron's Rubicon into statutory regulation. Of course, it does nothing of the kind. It is state regulation by any other name - to be overseen by the politician-infested Privy Council and to be amended only on the say-so of politicians in Parliament. It would inflict punitive damages on publications refusing to join the new regulatory structure. This is a threat, probably illegal, to their survival. Driving outspoken publications into bankrupcy has been an age-old instrument of authoritarian regimes from Franco to Putin. Do Cameron, Miliband and Nick Clegg really want to add their names to this roll of dishonour?

In the blue corner is a rival version of the Royal Charter, backed, so it seems, by most of the newspaper industry, national and regional. It is unclear, as I write, where the Guardian, Financial Times and Independent stand. It is an improvement for those who believe that the very principle of free speech is at stake. But it is not great. It is still an ersatz variant of statute. It still suffers from the idea, sedulously peddled by Hacked Off and the Labour Party, that there is an obligation to implement Leveson in full. That is false. Don't take my word for it. The Lord Chief Justice, Leveson's boss, said in 2011 that he, Leveson, would not be "providing a judgement which is binding on anyone in any way." There are those, of course, who question the point of a grossly expensive inquiry if its recommendations are not implemented. But, history is littered with inquiries, whose recommendations lie mouldering in the dusty archives of the state.

So, the press version of the Charter retains the mind-boggling complexity of Leveson's original construct - the multiple panels, boards, arms, committees, groups and bodies. By my count there are at least ten of them. It is a creation designed to throttle itself with the tendrils of its own intricacy. The press version still sups with one particularly vexatious devil: the so-called arbitration scheme, intended to deliver cheap-and-cheerful justice to those who want to sue publications. Anyone with an understanding of the real world would have realised that this risks creating client-chasing lawyers to rival those who badger you incessantly with cold calls about PPI mis-selling. No wonder the press want to pilot the scheme first. They might have done better to reject it out of hand. At best, this is an issue of law reform, not press regulation. How on earth is it supposed to work alongside the traditional complaints resolution service, the beating heart of the new system as it has always been of the PCC?

Hacked Off have gone into overdrive to discredit the newspaper industry's draft Charter. In their purblind zealotry, they refuse to see that, if the new system is to merit the title of self-regulation, as Judge Leveson professed to want, then by definition the press must have influence in it, the more so since they are paying the bill. The core question is how much influence. I have yet to find in the press proposals an area where independent members are not in the majority. This is hardly the return of the fox to the hen house.

If a free press has any meaning in this country, the newspaper industry had no choice but to reject the politicians' Royal Charter - just as, if Her Majesty, on the advice of her Privy Councillors, rejects the press version, the industry will have no choice but to push ahead with their neo-Levesonian regulatory system, albeit shorn of a Royal Charter.

Meanwhile - pass the smelling salts - the old regulatory system is working pretty well. In a right and proper division of labour, the 'discredited', but indispensable, PCC continues to rule each week on scores of complaints and to protect the public from press harassment, while the police pursue their enquiries into the criminal offence of phone-hacking. Remind me again, will you, why the Leveson Inquiry was set up.