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Sunday 17 March 2013

Last Minute Leveson Deal?

[Update at end of post]

The signs were there as the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the Seventeenth Baronet, sparred with Jeremy Vine on The Andy Marr Show (tm) this morning, telling his inquisitor that it would be A Very Good Thing to secure a cross-party deal on press regulation before tomorrow’s debate. That might be because he knows the Tories could lose the vote.

Estimates put the number of Tory rebels at between 20 and 60, and something in the middle of this range, together with Northern Irish, Scot Nats and Plaid, plus independents, voting against, assuming Lib Dem and Labour do not leak too many of their own votes, would produce a heavy defeat for Young Dave. This would be a high price for a few days’ favourable headlines.

The reason many Tories may not be so well disposed to doing the whips’ bidding has been explained by former Party chairman and cabinet minister Norman Fowler, who has confirmed that he would be voting against the Government, were he still an MP. He notes the pleading of the press, but points out their flagrant violation of others’ rights and freedoms in pursuit of stories.

As Fowler observes, “Leveson proposed a perfectly sensible and moderate reform: an independent board would check whether the essentially self-regulatory regime for handling complaints and ensuring fairness to the public was working properly. He believed that a short piece of legislation would give the public the greatest safeguard while protecting the legitimate rights of the press”.

So what are the sticking points? The forcing of corrections and apologies with due prominence is one, and the press having a veto on membership are mentioned: these are anathema to the likes of Paul Dacre, who refuses to even consider surrendering the freedom to put what he likes on the front page of the Daily Mail. He also wants to keep the likes of Brian Cathcart off the regulator.

And what Dacre decrees, Murdoch tends to agree, and the others fall into line. It is with this background in mind that one should read the account of Peter “Dominatrix” Dominiczak in the Telegraph, who summons the spectre of Cameron allowing statutory underpinning of the new body (this is held to be the end of press freedom as we know it, but would not affect it one jot).

In the meantime, the press has to answer the most obvious of questions: if the regulation it opposes is so unacceptable, why has the broadcast media, which is regulated by Ofcom, done all the proper investigative journalism recently (BBC on care homes, ITV on Savile and Channel 4 on Hackgate) while the press has done sweet jack? Once again, someone is protesting too much.

If only the press devoted as much effort to journalism as they do to protesting.

[UPDATE 18 March 0935 hours: a deal has now, apparently, been done, which is bad news for more than one paper which had already gone to press assuming otherwise. And, from what we have been told, it is Cameron who has caved, which figures, given the unfavourable Commons arithmetic.

Of the sticking points I noted above, the new regulator will be able to "direct" due prominence corrections, including on the front page. And there will be no veto on membership of the new body. So that's two to Miliband, Clegg and Hacked Off, and zero to Cameron and the press establishment.

On the subject of statutory underpinning, both sides are claiming victory, but we're talking a form of words to get round the issue. The new regulator will be set up so that Parliament cannot interfere with its working, and so will be properly independent.

That means, more or less, that the Leveson principles have been adhered to: the freedom of the press is effectively guaranteed, and so is the independence of press regulation, although there was a report yesterday evening suggesting the Rothermere, Barclay and Murdoch gangs might not play. We will see]


Unknown said...

An interesting column cheapened somewhat by you making fun of someone's Prussian surname (I presume Dominatrix is not a real nickname). You're better than that.

Tim Fenton said...

"Dominatrix" is actually his nickname. Why that may be I do not know, but it is widely used.

Dave Levy said...

Bit harsh on the Guardian and you should note that the Guardian, FT and Independent have split from the right wing press and support regulatory reform, as does Harold Evans.