A deal on Leveson

 

It’s a classical political fudge, but important and welcome for all that. Both sides emerging from overnight talks on press regulation in London claimed victory. But although the issue of who blinked, Prime Minister David Cameron or opposition leader Ed Miliband in cahoots with deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, may dominate press comment, encouraged by politicians, far more important is the reaching of all-party agreement largely modelled on the the report of Lord Justice Leveson. It will see a toothless and discredited press supervisory regime replaced by one genuinely independent of the owners, and with powers both to impose substantial fines and require prominent, proportionate apologies in offending papers.

Egregious conduct by sections of the press has made such change an imperative and is expected by, and the least that is owed to, its many victims. But it’s also crucial not to throw the baby out with the bathwater – oppressive regulation, not least the heavy hand of the state, could undermine media freedom and its key role in holding politicians to account.

Hence a deep dispute about giving the press council a “statutory underpinning”. To avoid that Cameron had proposed establishing it under a non-statutory royal charter, a little-used medieval royal prerogative. His concession early yesterday – a small statutory tweak – was to agree such a charter would be amendable only by a super-majority of two thirds in both Commons and Lords. Both sides can claim to have achieved their aim, while campaign group Hacked Off which has championed the cause of victims has also expressed satisfaction.

Other important elements of the deal provide that the industry will not get a veto on the press council board membership, although journalists and owners will have a majority on the code of conduct committee. And papers which sign up to the disciplines of the new press council will not be entirely exempt from the possibility of exemplary damages from the courts, as originally proposed, if the latter find the council acting “manifestly irrationally”.