Monday, 31 October 2011

Charles Windsor: Democracy and Hidden Power

Prince Charles, correctly known as Charles Windsor, is regularly asked to give his assent to proposed legislation passing before Parliament. He isn't a minister or an MP but a subject of the Crown like any other, yet if his interests are affected he has the power of veto over elected government. Since 2005 ministers have requested his approval for a dozen bills relating to coroners, economic development and construction, marine and coastal access, housing and regeneration, energy and planning. This process has been kept from the public eye and has no accountability.

Attempts to gain access to official papers setting out Windsor's meddling have largely failed, with most government departments, ministers and MPs questioned reserving the right to keep communications with the royals private.

An exception is Labour peer Lord Berkeley, who's also Harbour Commissioner for the Cornish port of Fowey. Recently he sponsored a private members' bill on marine navigation. On 6 September he received a letter from the House of Lords bill office. The letter stated: "The marine navigation bill you introduced would affect the Prince of Wales' interests, and so will require the Prince of Wales' consent for its consideration by Parliament.” Berkeley was told it was a matter of "if" not “when” Windsor would grant consent.

Through his position as the Prince of Wales Windsor is the beneficiary of the Duchy of Cornwall, created as a cash-cow for Edward III's eldest son who became Prince of Wales in 1343. Today the Duchy funds Windsor's multi-millionaire lifestyle, and bills affecting its interests, revenue or property must be agreed by him; he's also Duke of Cornwall. The estate’s a hard-nosed business; even during these bleak economic times its portfolio value has increased from £618m in 2006-7, to £712m in 2010-11. Over the same period, Windsor's annual income from the Duchy has risen from £15.2m to £17.8m.

Andrew George, Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives in Cornwall, has urged ministers to reveal the process by which Windsor interferes with the democratic process. When asked about Parliament’s consultation with the Prince on the recent Children's Rights Bill, the Education Minister, Sarah Teather, confirmed it had happened but said: "We don’t disclose the contents of correspondence with members of the royal family." George also enquired whether the Duchy had made any amendments to the draft Coroners and Justice Act; Justice Minister Crispin Blunt repeated the line.

The Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, which oversees the drafting of legislation, has declined to reveal under what conditions Windsor can veto proposed legislation, saying its refusal to disclose such information is a matter of "legal professional privilege".

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Mail Online: The Amanda Knox Case

The Mail Online, electronic organ of the loathsome Daily Mail, has sunk to new lows. Yesterday the trial came to an end in Italy of Amanda Knox, accused of murdering British student Meredith Kercher. Attempting to scoop the verdict, the Mail Online published a pre-written piece the moment the judge said the word "guilty."

Unfortunately though, the Mail was caught out by the judge finding Ms Knox guilty of slander, before clearing her of the murder charge. At the sound of the judge's first "guilty" they simply hit the 'publish' button.

The Mail's piece included a description of the defendant's ashen face after the guilty verdict had been read out against the murder charge. It also considered the likelihood of Ms Knox's appeal against her murder sentence; the probability of the appeal's rejection; and the speculation she'd be placed on suicide-watch. Reactions of both girls' families were described, the victim's relatives staring stonily ahead, the defendant's in tears; prosecutors were said to be delighted. Of course, none of this actually happened.

It's one thing to prepare two draft outcomes for court stories; in news journalism this is standard practice. But the Mail simply fictionalised the entire episode. Had the murder verdict been 'guilty', the dishonesty of the piece would have stayed undetected. The mistake isn't just about a pre-written story, the wrong boilerplate or predictive cliches. It's yet another in a long line of the Mail's unmitigated ethical disgraces.