Cameron hoping to buy time in face of demands for legislation
ANALYSIS:PM in favour of self-regulation but baulks at idea of legislating for it
Sitting under lights in the Queen Elizabeth II centre near Westminster Abbey yesterday lunchtime, Lord Justice Leveson spoke over the heads of politicians, editors and reporters to the public outside.
“I am doing what I believe is fair and right for everyone, not least the public. I am confident that my recommendations, and the reasons underlying them, will be seen by the public in that spirit,” he said.
He would be making no further comment, he said. “Nobody will be speaking for me about its contents either now, or in the future,” said the judge who heard 337 witnesses during nine months of oral hearings and read statements from 300 more.
“The ball moves back into the politicians’ court: they must now decide who guards the guardians,” he said, before he walked quietly off stage, ignoring a photographer’s question, “Did you enjoy it, Judge Leveson”.
The ball had indeed moved and gaps were beginning to appear.
Prime minister David Cameron wants self-regulation set up immediately, but baulks at legislating for it on the grounds that it would interfere with 330 years of press freedom in Britain.
For only the second occasion in hundreds of years, two men spoke for the government yesterday. Liberal Democrats deputy prime minister Nick Clegg insisted on putting his view of Leveson – different from Cameron’s – on the Commons’ record.
Clegg, unlike the prime minister, agrees with Leveson: legislation is needed to underpin a new independent self-regulatory body for the press. However, he has concerns about Leveson’s view that Ofcom, the independent regulator for the communications industry, should have the final say on whether the regulatory body is carrying out its core functions.
Equally, Leveson’s calls for tougher data protection rules could threaten the ability of investigative journalists to inquire into the affairs of those whose actions should be brought into the light of day.
For now, Cameron wants to buy time.Talks with Clegg and Labour’s Ed Miliband, mannerly enough, at least for the time being, began in the House of Commons yesterday evening.
Cameron’s MPs are split, though a significant majority are against state regulation. Legislation of a modest, utterly good-intentioned nature could be passed by the House of Commons simply to underpin an independent self-regulatory body today, Cameron said.
Deep in the bowels of his four-volume report, Leveson rejects various fears: “It has been argued that any legislation touching on press regulation would be the beginning of the slippery slope; that any government would find it easier to amend an existing Act than to bring forward new legislation to shackle the press; that parliament is itching to control the press and that this would be an opportunity to do so.
“I do not accept any of these arguments. If the history of the last 50 years on press regulation tells us anything, it tells us that parliament wants nothing less than to pass legislation to regulate the press,” he wrote.
For now, Cameron is hoping that the press will rush to set up the regulator as laid down by Leveson, minus the legal changes, in the hope that it will curb demands for changes by the House of Commons.
Many, though they recoil from the concept of legislation, realise they must act radically if they are to maintain any vestige of public trust.
In recent days, there has been much talk in Britain about the press being “in the last-chance saloon”. If so, there are times when a drinker should take the offer made by the barman, rather than hope things will improve. Many, if not all, in the British press realise that.