Cameron: Not statutory underpinning but a safeguard that says politicians can't fiddle - Press Gazette

Cameron: Not statutory underpinning but a safeguard that says politicians can't fiddle

A cross-party deal has been agreed on a Royal Charter to regulate the press which is set in stone via legislation saying that a two-thirds majority of both Houses of Parliament is needed to amend it.

Such a move was thought to have been beyond the pale for both press owners and the Conservatives.

The parties have agreed to a legislative amendment today which won't specifically mention press regulation, but which will underpin a clause in the press regulation Royal Charter which states that a two-thirds majority of both houses of Parliamanet is needed to amend it.

Conservative leader David Cameron said today that this does not amount to "statutory underpinning" of press regulation.

He said: "What it is is simply a clause that says politicians can't fiddle with this so it takes it further away from politicians, which is actually, I think, a sensible step.

He added: "What we wanted to avoid and we have avoided is a press law. Nowhere will it say what this body is, what it does, what it can't do, what the press can and can't do. That, quiet rightly, is being kept out of Parliament. So no statutory underpinning but a safeguard that says politicians can't in future fiddle with this arrangement."

He added: "I'm delighted with this deal. I've always wanted two things and that is a strong regulator to stand up for the victims and we have got that and also a proper defence of press freedom and we have got that.

"What's happened is that everyone has accepted my argument for a Royal Charter. Why does that matter? Well I thought it was important to avoid a press law, a law that said the press can do this, the regulator's got to do that. That would be dangerous, that's not going to happen and that's what we secured and that's why this is a good deal."

Under the cross-party deal a clause is being inserted into the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill in the Lords later this afternoon. 

It states: "Where a body is established by Royal Charter after 1 March 2013 with functions relating to the carrying on of an industry, no recommendation may be made to Her Majesty in Council to amend the body's Charter or dissolve the body unless any requirements included in the charter on the date it is granted for Parliament to approve the amendment or dissolution have been met."

An Opposition source accused the Conservatives of trying to save face, insisting: "This is not a little bit of statute, this is not a dab of statute, this is statute pure and simple."

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: "In effect what we have done is adopt the so-called 'royal charter plus' in full, which we published last Friday and it is underpinned by legislation – both to install a real system of costs and damages and crucially to make sure that future governments can't mess around with the Royal Charter in a way that everyone had concerns (about)."

On Friday, the Conservatives published a revised press regulation Royal Charter which included key concessions to campaigners. But Labour and the Lib Dems published a rival document and insisted that the charter needed to be protected from future ministerial interference by passing a law which stated that a two-thirds majority of both sides of Parliament would be needed to change it.

After further cross-party talks which ended at 2.30am this morning the Conservatives appear to have conceded this final point rather than see their plan face a likely defeat in the Commons today.

A senior Labour source said: "After five and a half hours of talks in Ed Miliband's office which ended at 2.30am, we are confident we have the basis of an agreement around our Royal Charter entrenched in statute."
Labour leader Ed Miliband told the BBC: "A free press has nothing to fear from what has been agreed."
"What we have agreed is essentially the Royal Charter that Nick Clegg and I published on Friday. It will be underpinned by statute. Why is that important? Because it stops ministers or the press meddling with it, watering it down in the future.

"It will be a regulator, a system of complaints where the regulator has teeth so they can direct apologies if wrong is done and it is independent of the press, which is so important because for too long we have had a system where the press have been marking their own homework."

He added: "People who revealed MPs' expenses, people who revealed phone-hacking have nothing to fear from what has been agreed.

"I think a free press has nothing to fear from what has been agreed. This is about a press that doesn't abuse its own power and, if that power is abused, victims have a right to redress because, so often in the past when things went wrong – take the case of the McCanns – they felt they had nobody to turn to."

Commons showdown

A Commons showdown was set up by Cameron when he dramatically ended negotiations to find a way to implement the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry into phone-hacking on Thursday.
He had said using legislation would "cross the Rubicon" and endanger press freedom, but appeared to soften his stance over the weekend
While Number 10 sources said statutory underpinning was "unnecessary and undesirable", Cameron signalled that it was not  "a big issue of principle".
Victims of scandals such as thalidomide and child abuse urged MPs to defend freedom of the press, which they said had ensured the truth about their cases was exposed.
Freddie Astbury, president of Thalidomide UK and a victim of the side-effects of the morning sickness drug, told The Daily Telegraph: "With thalidomide we learned the lesson that it's very important to have a free press.
"If the Lib Dems and Labour introduce a law making it harder to investigate things like this they will be protecting the likes of pharmaceutical companies and not protecting the victims."
Tory Mayor of London Boris Johnson wrote in the newspaper that any form of statutory regulation of the press would be "potentially calamitous" for the UK's reputation.
"Anything remotely approaching legislation" would give politicians "the tools they need to begin the job of cowing and even silencing the press", he said.
Today the Daily Mail said in its leader column: "In the Commons today, MPs face a stark but simple choice – defend the freedom of expression which has been a cornerstone of British democracy for 300 years, or consign it to the scrapheap of history for the sake of petty politics."
The Sun today made the case against statute-backed press regulation in a front page which quoted Winston Churchill speaking in 1949: "A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny."…
Inside, the UK's best-selling daily paper quoted a variety of figures from history to make its point including: Gandhi: "Freedom of the press is a precious privilege that no country can forgo" and Napoleon: "Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets."
In a leader column The Sun today suggested that the Leveson law being proposed today: "could prove disastrous in the hands of future Governments".
It claimed that the campaign led by Hacked Off and "their bedfellows on the Left" "is about revenge and tribal politics. About drawing blood from papers that gave them a hard time."
It says: "No one knows where state regulation would end."



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Author: Dominic Ponsford

Dominic Ponsford is the editor of Press Gazette