14 Mar 2013

Cameron abandons all-party talks on press freedom

Cross-party talks on proposed reforms to press regulation have broken down after Prime Minister David Cameron told the other party leaders that the gap between them was too great.

Mr Cameron said that he would be pushing ahead with the recommendation from his own media inquiry – of a press regulator with the power to impose fines of up to £1m but not backed up by statute.

At a press conference, Mr Cameron said the gap between politicians was unbridgeable. “I’ve chosen a practical solution over an unworkable solution,” he told journalists. “I have chosen a solution that protects press freedom over a solution that threatens press freedom.”

Labour leader Ed Miliband and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg have been pushing for legislation to back up the new system, as proposed by Lord Justice Leveson in his report on phone hacking.

I have chosen a solution that protects press freedom over a solution that threatens press freedom – David Cameron

But in a phone conversation between the three leaders this morning, Mr Cameron told them they were trying to push him beyond a position he was comfortable with and beyond something the press would sign up to.

Mr Miliband said: “David Cameron’s decision to walk away from the talks is an historic mistake. He has not just walked away from the talks, he has walked away from his own words.

“This is not a party political issue; this is about the national interest and we are going to reach out to all of the concerned people, obviously the Liberal Democrats, but also the Conservatives, to say let’s construct a workable solution that serves the interest of the victims.

“I still believe that we can do that on a cross-party basis. It may not involve David Cameron, but I’m afraid that is his choice.”

Cameron is trying to raise a smokescreen to hide his dirty dealings behind closed doors with powerful press barons. Brian Cathcart

And Hugh Grant, one of the leading members of the ‘Hacked Off’ group calling for stricter controls on the press, described Cameron’s announcement as “two fingers to public opinion” (see tweet, below).

Professor Brian Cathcart, executive cirector of Hacked Off, said: “David Cameron is trying to portray this as an issue of press freedom. No serious person believes that the Leveson recommendations on press regulation pose any threat to freedom of expression.

“Cameron is trying to raise a smokescreen to hide his dirty dealings behind closed doors with powerful press barons who don’t want to have to be accountable when their newspapers – to use Lord Justice Leveson’s words – ‘wreak havoc in the lives of innocent people’.”


In a joint statement, executives of major newspaper publishing groups and press bodies said they shared Mr Cameron’s frustration at the “hijacking” of talks on the future of regulation by those demanding legislation.

The statement said the UK’s press was ready to “move with speed” to set up a new system of “tough, independent, effective self regulation.”

“We share the prime minister’s frustration at the way in which talks about the future of press regulation have broken down and legislation has been hijacked,” the statement said.

“The prime minister is right to reject statutory regulation of the press – free of political control for 300 years – as fundamentally wrong in principle and unworkable in practice.

“The industry has spent many weeks in negotiating a new independent system of self regulation, based on the Leveson principles, which provides £1m fines and the toughest system of regulation in the western world.

“We have made major concessions in order to reach agreement, although there are elements of the proposed reforms – such as exemplary damages – to which we remain opposed. However, this need not stop a new regulator being put in place.”

The statement was signed by a number of major publishing names, including: Lord (Guy) Black, chairman of the Press Standards Board of Finance, Paul Dacre of Daily Mail Group, Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of the Telegraph Media Group and John Witherow of News International.

‘Something victims can buy into’

Discussing the future for press regulation (see video above), former Crimewatch presenter Jacqui Hames told Channel 4 News: “Let’s make sure that everything is watertight and that this is actually something that the victims, and the rest of the country, the public, can buy into.”

Citing the example of the formation of Ofcom, which he said took seven years, former News of the World editor Neil Wallis suggested that a body to regulate the press could not be created at the drop of a hat.

The problem with the ayatollahs of Hacked Off is, they can’t see anything but their own dogma. Neil Wallis

“The newspaper industry has put forward something extremely different to what was there before,” Mr Wallis told Cathy Newman.

“The newspaper industry has accepted… that things went wrong. They have brought in a whole new system.”

On the Leveson recommendations, she concluded: “I’d rather his recommendations than an ex-tabloid editor.”

Neil Wallis responded: “The problem with the ayatollahs of Hacked Off is, they can’t see anything but their own dogma.”

‘Serious concerns and misgivings’

In his response to the Leveson inquiry’s recommendations in November, Mr Cameron said he wanted to see a new strong regulator for the press, able to impose penalties of £1m , but had “serious concerns and misgivings” in principle to any statutory interference in the media.

He made clear then that he did not want to “cross the Rubicon” into writing elements of press regulation into the law.

Following the publication of the Leveson report, Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin drew up plans for an independent body, backed by royal charter, to oversee the press self-regulation system.

Mr Cameron believed that this provided a workable solution to the impasse, but the plan has come under attack from supporters of reform, including the Hacked Off campaign, which wants Leveson’s recommendations implemented in full.

A series of cross-party discussions culminated in a meeting yesterday between Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband and Mr Clegg at which no agreement was reached. This morning’s phone call appears to have brought an end to the process.

Monday’s vote will impose considerable strain on the coalition, as Liberal Democrat MPs would be able to inflict defeat on the Conservative proposals by combining with Labour.