Cameron faces "Leveson by the backdoor" after Lords defeat

Surprise defeat over press regulation will force the Tories to overturn Lords amendments in the Commons. But will Labour and the Lib Dems let them?

While everyone's attention was on the equal marriage debate, the Conservatives suffered a significant defeat in the House of Lords over press regulation. Taking ministers by surprise, peers voted by 272 to 141 to introduce a low-cost arbitration system for victims of press defamation, one of the key recommendations of the Leveson report. 

Since those papers that do not join up to the system could be punished by courts awarding greater damages and costs, the proposal represents a form of the state-backed regulation that David Cameron has unambiguously rejected. The rebellion notably included senior Tory peers such as Lord Ashcroft (yes, the billionaire party donor and media mogul), Lord Fowler, Lord Hurd and Lord Astor, Cameron's father-in-law. The economist Robert Skidelsky, a crossbench peer and NS contributor, noted that some peers had described the amendments as "Leveson by the backdoor" and added: "To my mind, that is an important merit of the bill because we are unlikely to get Leveson through the front door". Lord Fowler described the move as a "building block in implementing Leveson - a kind of stalking horse".

If the Conservatives want to avoid "Leveson by the backdoor", they will now need to overturn the amendments in the Commons. With Labour and the Liberal Democats both in favour of state-backed regulation, this could prove a challenge for the government.

For now, the long-stalled cross-party talks on Leveson continue, with the parties next due to meet on Monday. During the debate, Lord McNally, the Liberal Democrat leader in the Lords, promised that the government's proposal of a royal charter to oversee press regulation would finally be published next week. As IPPR's Tim Finch noted on The Staggers on Monday, Labour has not ruled out supporting this compromise. In her speech at the think-tank's recent Oxford Media Convention, Harriet Harman, the shadow media secretary, said she was "unpersuaded" by the idea but actions speak louder than words; Labour failed to follow through on its threat to force a Commons vote on its own draft bill in January if the government failed to bring forward satisfactory proposals by Christmas. Moreover, as Tim wrote, "being unpersuaded is not quite the same as being unpersuadable".

The government is confident that the Lib Dems, and possibly Labour, will unite around the proposal of a royal charter. But last night's Lords defeat means Clegg and Miliband now have a powerful bargaining chip.

A protest group stages a mock burning of the Leveson report outside the Queen Elizabeth II centre in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.