Cameron outflanked on UK press regulation

Royal charter likely to be supported by legislation


On Thursday, British prime minister David Cameron abandoned talks with the other party leaders, saying agreement could not be reached and key legislation unconnected to press regulation is being held up. The vote could see tougher regulation being passed by a union of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, along with some Conservatives unhappy with Mr Cameron’s refusal to accept that the regulation should be backed up by law.

The differences between the sides could seem esoteric to outsider, but Mr Cameron, along with much of the newspaper industry and others, argue that Monday’s vote could have significant implications for press freedom in England and Wales.

Press regulator
Both sides accept that the new press regulator should be set up by a Royal charter, as governs the BBC, universities and some other bodies – but Labour and Lib Dems want this backed up by legislation.

Mr Cameron argues that enshrining the Royal charter in law would harm press freedom, while Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband insist the regulator would have insufficient powers to prevent bad behaviour without it. In particular, the Liberal Democrat and Labour leaders are opposed to giving publishers a vote over the membership of the regulatory board, though Mr Cameron argues that the industry will not accept regulation by a body if it believes will give it no hearing.

Publishing the Liberal Democrats/Labour plans, Mr Clegg sought to maintain relations with Mr Cameron, saying the prime minister’s proposals “takes us towards a possible solution but needs strengthening in a few important respects”. Insisting that he is following a middle course, Mr Clegg said the legislation he has in mind would “place an explicit safeguard in law against future governments playing around with the Royal Charter – a crucial guarantee for both the public and the press”.

Saying he believed Conservative MPs could support the joint plan, Mr Clegg said: “It reassures the press that there is no danger to their historical freedom while giving assurance to the victims that they will be protected.”

The Labour leader said the opportunity offered by the Leveson Inquiry – prompted by phone-hacking by some journalists, most notably murder victim, Millie Dowler – to regulate the press effectively “should not be allowed to slip away”. Properly established, the regulator supported by the Liberal Democrats and Labour would be able to order the publication of prominent apologies, along with imposing damages on newspapers.