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Leveson: who will blink first, Labour or the Tories?

With some reservations, Labour is inching towards accepting the Tories' proposal of a Royal Charter to underpin a new press regulator.

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

In the two and a half months since the Leveson report was published, it has often appeared in danger of becoming what its chair described as "a footnote in some professor of journalism’s analysis of the history of the 21st century". But today the Conservatives will finally publish their plans to introduce a new system of press regulation. Having rejected Leveson's recommendation that any new body be underpinned by statute, the Tories have alighted on Oliver Letwin's proposal of a Royal Charter, the mechanism used to establish the BBC and the Bank of England, to formally recognise the new watchdog. 

Press campaigners have already rejected the plan as unacceptable. Evan Harris, the former Lib Dem MP and associate director of Hacked Off, described it as "one of the weakest forms of self-regulation anywhere to oversee one of the presses capable of the worst excesses. This is weaker than the [existing] Press Complaints Commission." But Labour and the Liberal Democrats have refused to rule out supporting this option. While both continue to favour state-backed regulation, they are aware of the need for progress after months of cross-party talks. Labour's decision not 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 was viewed by the Tories as evidence of its willingness to compromise. 

One reason why Labour is more favourable to a Royal Charter than might be thought is that, in practice, it may be largely indistinguishable from state-backed regulation. As Conservative peer Norman Fowler has pointed out, "The final irony of the Letwin plan is that – in spite of all the fine words about how unacceptable it is to have statutory intervention – it looks as though the royal charter will require legislation to enable it to work. How else can the new system of damages and costs be introduced?" Indeed, one of the concerns expressed by Harman is that a Royal Charter (which would require renewal by the government every ten years), would place the ultimate responsibility for press regulation in the hands of ministers, rather than parliament. For now, the desire on all sides to avoid further delay, means a messy compromise is the most likely outcome.