Is Labour preparing to compromise over Leveson?

State-backed regulation would be much the best outcome. But Oliver Letwin's proposal of a Royal Charter might just be acceptable.

It’s taken a while, but this may be the week in which we get to see the government’s proposals for implementing the Leveson report.

Labour, which had been harrying for action, has let the first month of 2013 pass, a show of patience that may be significant. Late last year Ed Miliband was warning that if David Cameron didn’t come forward with satisfactory proposals by Christmas, Labour would force a Commons vote in January on its own draft bill.

The principal clause of that bill is that a new independent regulator should be underpinned by parliamentary statute, in line with Leveson’s key recommendation. That of course the Prime Minister has explicitly rejected, thereby opening up an apparently unbridgeable gap between the Conservatives and Labour. But at IPPR’s recent Oxford Media Convention, the shadow culture secretary, Harriet Harman, softened Labour’s hard deadline and more intriguingly appeared to throw a rope across the chasm that divides the parties.

It came in response to Oliver Letwin’s idea of a Royal Charter. This plan, reflecting Letwin’s reputation for feline cleverness, would provide legal underpinning for a recognition body for the new press regulator, not via a single statute, but rather through a combination of Royal Charter and accompanying statute. It may require legislation, but perhaps of a limited nature, reducing the involvement of parliament in deciding on press regulation – a notion offensive to some critics. On the other hand, the nature of a charter is that it would mean the press couldn’t change the oversight arrangements for its own regulatory body without government approval. All in all, it would provide what might be described as underhand statutory underpinning.

For many this suggestion is way too slippery. The campaign group Hacked Off has called it "overcomplicated and undemocratic" and the Media Reform Coalition has also highlighted its dangers. But what is Labour’s view? On the face of it, Harman rejected the idea at Oxford. Labour was "unpersuaded" of the Letwin plan, she said, and given a choice between Dolly the sheep and a sheep – why not stick with the sheep. So: rejection out of hand? Perhaps not. After all, being unpersuaded is not quite the same as being unpersuadable and if the clone can be engineered to be almost indistinguishable from the real thing, maybe it will suffice.

IPPR is most uneasy about shifting on this totemic issue. In our Life after Leveson report we called for full statutory underpinning, anticipating Leveson’s recommendation, right down to suggesting that Ofcom should be the back stop regulator. We still think that this is the best arrangement and are wary of the motivations of those who oppose full legal backing for future press regulation.

On the other hand, sometimes deals have to be done in politics in order to escape from an impasse. So although any move to towards the Letwin plan in some form will inevitably get one c-word thrown at it – climbdown - it might that another is more appropriate – compromise. After all, in floating the idea of a Royal Charter, the Conservatives have shifted their position somewhat, albeit to get themselves off a hook. And let’s not forget that the BBC – generally a repository of public trust because of its high journalistic standards - is established under Royal Charter. Similar regulatory arrangements for the press fall short of the ideal, but might do the job nonetheless.

Most important, though, is that whatever system of regulation is finally established commands the widest possible public confidence. Not the least of the virtues of the Leveson inquiry was that it all took place out in the open. The public could have its say and the powerful were called to account. This full airing was vital to bring about a much needed institutional deep clean of the most stinking chambers of the press. So it is a shame, if perhaps inevitable, that the process of implementing Leveson has been characterised by closed cross-party negotiations, secret talks among editors and the discredited PCC, in zombie form, taking unto itself the task of establishing a successor body. We, the public, have been locked out again.

That needs to change. Harman’s new red line on Leveson was that the government publish the Royal Charter proposals by the end of January. A few days have already passed, but if publication is imminent we can forgive that. Thereafter, we need to see a proper process of public consultation take place. The government and indeed opposition should take full account of whether public opinion is prepared to accept anything short of Leveson in toto. Maybe it will, but the alternative needs to be explained fully and openly, and even if they are not strictly needed, a whole panoply of public forums, select committee hearings, and parliamentary votes should take place before the idea is confirmed. While we should have a hayfever sufferer’s dread of the long grass, we should also have a claustrophobic aversion to everything happening behind closed doors. Leveson in full would be much the best outcome. Something close might just be acceptable. But we should certainly resist a quick stitch-up.

Tim Finch is director of communications at IPPR

IPPR's report Life after Leveson: The challenge to strengthen Britain’s diverse and vibrant media can be read here

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

Tim Finch is director of communications for IPPR

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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle