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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage