15 Mar 2013

Leveson: the battle to preserve press freedom

With David Cameron’s proposals set against rival plans by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the prime minister has 48 hours to sell his vision of press regulation.

It is going to be a tense weekend for the prime minister, writes Kunal Dutta. He is running out of time to win the argument over press regulation – and on Monday MPs will vote on his proposed crime and courts bill.

This weekend MPs have to decide between two rival royal charters, one from the Tories and the other from Labour and the Liberal Democrats. In their wording they are very similar, apart from in some small but important respects.

The Labour and the Lib Dem proposals push the need for statutory underpinning. They say their charter would help victims of intrustion in three specific ways that they claim the Cameron plan lacks.

Labour leader Ed Miliband told Channel 4 News its proposals guarantee the press regulator will be independent, ensure that the regulator has “teeth”, and offer a system “that will endure”. The full charter can be read here.

I’m not quite sure why we’ve gone down a royal charter route in the first place. Gerry McCann, Hacked Off

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, said the proposals strike a balance between freedom of the press and “the right of the Dowlers, the McCanns and others to be protected from unwarranted intrusion and bullying by the press”.

Gerry McCann, the Hacked off campaigner, said today that Lord Leveson’s report had stated that statutory underpinning for press regulation was essential.

“It’s slightly archaic to use a royal charter,” he told Channel 4 News, “but if we do use it and it is robust, then I think that’s OK – but I’m not quite sure why we’ve gone down a royal charter route in the first place.”

Holding the cards

The cross-party squabbling is all a far cry from this time last year, when Mr Cameron said that unless “barmy”, the Leveson recommendations would be implemented in full.

Now it seems that is almost not going to happen. Talks between the three party leaders broke down on Wednesday and such was the depth of fallout that Mr Cameron cut a lonely figure when he held a press conference yesterday morning announcing the end of cross-party agreements.

Today the Conservatives have published their amendments to the crime and courts bill. It would allow the courts to impose “exemplary damages” on newspapers which lose civil cases relating to libel, slander, breach of confidence, misuse of private information, malicious falsehood or harassment.

Newspapers that sign up to an approved regulator, recognised by a verification body established by royal charter, would be exempt from this. The idea is to dangle a carrot that would incentivise newspapers to engage with the new system.

We can’t go on with a situation where the victims and the public don’t know what sort of press regulation we’re going to have. David Cameron

Mr Cameron hopes that the threat of falling foul – and the prospect of stiff penalties at a time when most newspapers are on battling in tough financial weather – will be enough to keep the media in check without resorting to statute.

Speaking in Brussels today, the prime minister said: “What we can’t go on with is a situation where the victims and the public don’t know what sort of press regulation we’re going to have.”

He continued: “We can’t go on with a situation where bill after bill of the government’s legislative programme is potentially hijacked or contaminated with motions and amendments that are about something completely different.”

The road ahead

There are, however, a few gremlins ahead. If parliament approves the Conservative amendments, Mr Cameron then needs to seal the agreement of the Privy Council, whose current president is Nick Clegg. This gives the Lib Dem leader much power to play with.

Meanwhile, opinions seem split, even within his own party. Tory backbencher Robert Buckland said today that he may rebel on Monday, as he believes that the regulator must have the power to “direct” newspapers on the wording and positioning of any apology – both issues on which Labour and Lib Dems say Mr Cameron’s proposals fall short.

Culture Secretary Maria Miller came out on the offensive this morning, urging MPs to back Mr Cameron’s proposals and warning that the Labour and Lib Dem alternative would open the door to “state licensing of newspapers”.

Allies of the prime minister have acknowledged that, with no overall Conservative majority, there is a “strong chance” that he will be defeated in the House of Commons on Monday. Victims feel Mr Cameron has reneged on a pledge and added to their anguish. The Lib Dems hold a crucial card. The stage is set. Expect fireworks.