18 Mar 2013

All sides claim victory after press regulation deal

David Cameron welcomes agreement on press regulation, saying it is not a “press law”. But Labour and Liberal Democrats say the deal involves a royal charter backed by law. So what was agreed?

Following late night talks, which finished at 2:30am on Monday morning, Labour‘s Harriet Harman broke the news that an agreement had been reached which “protects the freedom of the press” but also “protects the rights of people”.

A new independent regulator of the press will be set up under a royal charter – a type of governance which was employed to establish institutions such as the BBC, the British Red Cross and the Bank of England.

Ms Harman said the charter would be underpinned by law, in order to prevent political “tampering”. However David Cameron insisted the agreement avoided the need for a law to control newspapers.

So no statutory underpinning but a safeguard that says politicians can’t in future fiddle with this arrangement. David Cameron

Announcing the draft royal charter, which will need to be approved by the Queen’s Privy Council, Mr Cameron told MPs: “What happened to the Dowlers, to the McCanns, to Christopher Jeffries and to many other innocent people who’ve never sought the limelight was utterly despicable.

“It is right that we put in place a new system of press regulation to ensure such appalling acts can never happen again. We should do this without any further delay.”

The Liberal Democrats and Labour had wanted a royal charter – a formal document used to set up bodies such as universities and the BBC – backed by legislation, while Mr Cameron supported a royal charter without a law.

Political Editor Gary Gibbon blogs: On press controls, Clegg and Miliband moved – but Cameron blinked

The overhaul of press regulation began after the revelation that journalists at the News of the World had hacked thousands of phones to get stories, including murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. A review by Lord Justice Leveson concluded that an independent regulator, backed by law (or as politicians like to call it, “statutory underpinning”) was necessary to reign in the behaviour of the press.

Representatives of the campaign group Hacked Off were present at the talks and welcomed the deal, saying that it largely adhered to Lord Leveson’s recommendations (see video below).

What was agreed?

After all the political attempts at point scoring, it is no surprise that deciphering what the deal actually contains has proved more difficult.

Press law: the prime minister had argued that a press law went too far. And on the one hand, Mr Cameron can claim a victory in that there is no new law to govern the press. Instead, the deal involves an amendment to the enterprise and regulatory reform bill, which is already going though parliament and will be voted on in the House of Lords on Monday afternoon.

However under the terms of the new deal, the royal charter cannot be changed by ministers - either to water down regulation, or to restrict the press - unless there is a two-thirds majority vote in the Commons and the Lords.

So Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who in recent months agreed to the royal charter but called for it to have the strength of law behind it, can argue that the charter is protected by the power of a government majority vote.

Press apologies
: The new independent regulator is likely to have the power to impose fines of up to £1m, force a newspaper to issue corrections and direct newspapers on the size and positioning of apologies.

Industry veto: In another concession by the Conservatives, a spokesman for the prime minister said the press would not be able to veto appointments to the regulator's board.

Protects victims ‘and free press’

Ed Miliband told the Commons that the victims of phone hacking had “been failed at every turn” but their bravery had led to the Leveson Inquiry and changes to the regulatory system.

He said: “Today we break the pattern of decades and decades, where politicians promised to act on wrongdoings by the press and failed to do so.

“Some people will ask why we are here today at all when there are so many pressing issues that the country has to deal with.

“My answer is simple: because I don’t want to live in a country where sections of the press can abuse their power to wreak havoc on the lives of innocent people.”

‘Sad day for press freedom’

Harriet Harman said on Monday morning: “What we are going to have is a system whereby it is a royal charter, which is quite a sort of complex and old-fashioned thing but that kind of more or less… has got legal basis.”

But the deal was not welcomed by all. Free speech campaign group Index on Censorship chief executive Kirsty Hughes said the decision was a “sad day for press freedom in the UK”.

“Index is against the introduction of a royal charter that determines the details of establishing a press regulator in the UK – the involvement of politicians undermines the fundamental principle that the press holds politicians to account,” Ms Hughes added.

Mr Cameron re-opened the talks with Labour and the Liberal Democrats on Sunday, after saying on Thursday that efforts to agree on the best way to regulate the press had failed.

He had been facing a likely Commons defeat over his vision of how a royal charter would establish a press regulator, with around 20 of his MPs set to back a rival vision put together by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

In a joint statement, representatives of some of Britain’s largest newspaper publishing groups said they would need time to study the cross-party proposals before responding, noting that early drafts contained “several deeply contentious issues which have not yet been resolved with the industry”.