After months of bitter wrangling that threatened to tear apart the ruling Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition, political parties on Monday reached a deal on implementing the Leveson proposals to regulate the press in the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.
The deal came hours before a crucial vote in the Commons that might have resulted in a humiliating defeat for Prime Minister David Cameron. The Lib Dems and the opposition Labour party had joined hands to push for a law to ensure the independence of the proposed regulatory mechanism — a position fiercely opposed by Mr. Cameron and newspaper owners on grounds that it smacked of state intervention in press affairs. Finally, the three parties reportedly have agreed to the setting up of an independent regulator by a Royal Charter like the one that governs the BBC. Details were still fuzzy with the Labour party claiming that the charter would be “underpinned by statute” as recommended by Lord Justice Leveson in his voluminous report last November. The regulator would have enough “teeth” to punish erring newspapers, but “a free press has nothing to fear from what has been agreed”.
The Tories insisted there was no proposal for a statutory “underpinning” though a “safeguard” would be added to prevent politicians from “fiddling” with the arrangement in future.
“We’ve stopped Labour’s extreme version of the press laws… There is no statutory underpinning. What we’re talking about here is that there can be no change to the charter in future,” Culture Secretary Maria Miller told the BBC.
Mr. Cameron said: “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… So, no statutory underpinning but a safeguard that says politicians can’t in future fiddle with this arrangement.”
The Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said he was “delighted” with the agreement but did not elaborate on details. “We’ve secured the cherished principle of freedom of the press, which is incredibly important in our democracy, but also given innocent people the reassurance that we won’t be unjustifiably bullied or intimidated by powerful interests in the press without having proper recourse when that happens,” he said.
The group Hacked Off, which represents victims of media excesses and wants the Leveson proposals implemented in full, welcomed the deal.