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