David Cameron has crossed the Rubicon. No, we don’t mean the Rubicon of statute he spoke of back in November when Lord Justice Leveson delivered his report into press standards. We are referring his decision to unilaterally pull the plug on cross party Leveson talks, bringing weeks of tripartite brinksmanship to a head. Now he tells the other parties: “your move.”
Something had to give. First, Oliver Letwin tried to dodge the question of statute by proposing a Royal Charter. But that only lasted until people noticed it trampled all over Leveson’s warning that any new regulatory body should be independent from the newspapers themselves.
Then we saw the House of Lords put pressure on the government from left and right by tacking Leveson amendments onto cherished bills. That forced Cameron to sit up and take notice, and made editors break ranks to demand he bring his negotiations with the press outside of closed doors.
When Labour and the Lib Dems teamed up on Wednesday, bludgeoning the PM with yet another amendment and threatening to force a vote on Leveson, he was backed into a corner. He was going to have to compromise – and finally get tough on his allies among the fatter cats of Fleet Street.
Instead, the one-time rider of Raisa the Horse has forced the issue. He’s going to put the Tory plan for a Royal Charter to vote on Monday, and hope that the Lib Dems will cave in rather than risk the Coalition turning hostile.
Of course, Lots-Of-Love Dave is portraying this as a result of talks breaking down. “Fundamental differences,” he said; “grandstanding,” he accused, “inaction,” he warned. But that’s news to the other parties, who were prepared to clinch an agreement. “We were very surprised and disappointed,” said one Lib Dem source. “We thought we were making real progress.” Indeed, Cameron has even said he’d back a few lines of statute to freeze it in place. So what gives?
Hacked Off people meeting civil servants about Charter drafting were escorted out of DCMS just now when Cameron suddenly pulled the plug.
— Hacked Off (@hackinginquiry) March 14, 2013
The truth is that the Prime Minister is making a political calculation. In the short term, he does not wish to anger his allies in the press, from Lords Hunt and Black through Paul Dacre to Rupert Murdoch himself. In the medium term, he knows he will rely on their newspapers for re-election in 2015 and that even if he fails this vote they will know he’s on their side. In the long term, we will not have independent regulation of the press and the victims of phone-hacking will not have the protections they deserve.
Nick Robinson asks if Cameron is satisfying the “Murdochs, the Dacres, the Barclays” not the McCanns and the Dowlers. — Dan Sabbagh (@dansabbagh) March 14, 2013
Yes, the royal charter implements many of the things that Leveson asked for and that we support. It creates an arbitration service, allows for serious fines, and But it would also be open to ministerial meddling. Moreover, it would allow the active press to influence appointments to the regulator, allow the new body to pick and choose which complaints it addresses, and in various other ways essentially open the way to a beefed-up but still-supine PCC Mark II. True independence from the press and the government is the Rubicon that Cameron would rather play chicken on than cross.
The problem with this strategy is that he might just lose. If the Lib Dems side with Labour – and they might well since Clegg and Milliband appear to be reading from the same script – then they could outvote even a harshly whipped Conservative party. Smaller parties and regional parties, like Plaid Cymru, Respect, or the Scottish National Party may be decisive. It could go either way, but, as Roy Greenslade points out, “Leveson’s nuanced report has been reduced to a black-or-white, yes-or-no political decision”.
I’m told Lab wanted to avoid “Commons dogfight” on leveson on Mon. They warn that’s what Cam may now get cos Lib and Lab MPs outnumber Cons — Paul Waugh (@paulwaugh) March 14, 2013
So be it. We’re given to understand that Hacked Off are organising a lobby in Parliament on Monday and preparing a simple letter-writing tool to MPs. If you’re interested in using both, watch this space or email your details to email@example.com.
In the meantime, write to your MP. Lobby whoever you can. Put as much pressure as you can exert on your own representatives – not necessarily to uncritically adopt Leveson, but neither to buckle to the power of the press barons. We can have libel reform and a press that acts in the public interest – and we need both.