Less transparent than a papal election

The government's secret political manoeuvres to create an alternative to Leveson undermine any claims they might have had to upholding the "Leveson principles".

Less than two hours after the Leveson report was published – just over 24 hours after he gained first sight of it – the Prime Minister rejected the report's central recommendation. But, in his same Parliamentary statement, he committed to creating a new, independent system of press self-regulation that adhered to the Leveson principles.

Having rejected the first he is now failing on the second.

Central to Leveson's criticisms of previous self-regulatory systems was the way in which they were set up. Each time, Leveson said, the industry focused on its own needs and not those of the public. Each time the result was a system that served the industry well but failed the public. Any new system, Leveson makes clear, should be set up in consultation with, and with the direct involvement of, the public - including the victims of press abuse.

This did not happen with the plan submitted by the industry to the Leveson Inquiry – the so-called "Hunt/Black" plan. The judge said he found it remarkable that, even after all the revelations about phone hacking and press abuse, Lords Hunt and Black could develop a proposal without involving victims, civil society groups or working journalists.

Leveson writes:

I find it extraordinary that, given the acceptance by Lord Black and the newspaper industry that the current system of press regulation has lost public confidence, they did not regard public views on the matter as of sufficient interest or importance to make any effort to ascertain them. I find it more extraordinary that, having had its attention drawn to this point by the Inquiry, there is still no sign of the industry making any effort to understand public expectations in relation to press standards. This lack of interest in the views of the public may be symptomatic of the approach that the press has consistently taken towards regulation over many decades. It demonstrates the extent to which the press continue to prioritise their own interests, with consideration of the wider public interest only in as much as it applies to the importance of protecting the freedom of the press, and only then to the extent that they can appoint themselves the arbiter of it.

As a result, the industry's plan, like so many others before it, was biased against the public, and against the victims of press abuse. "It is important to note," the judge writes on page 1622, "that the proposal put forward by Lord Black gives no rights of any sort to members of the public". This is why, he says, so many previous systems have failed and why the new one must be built differently. "I have said, many times," he continues, "that any new regulatory system must work for the public and for a system to work for the public it should have the rights and interests of the public at its heart." The proposal put forward by the industry "manifestly fails that test."

If there was ever a "Leveson principle", this is it. A new system of independent self-regulation cannot be credible if it is not developed with the public at its heart, and done in an open, transparent and accountable way.

Yet this is the opposite of what is happening. A new system is being developed, at great speed, by senior government ministers and officials, and by newspaper editors and senior executives, entirely behind closed doors. Senior government figures are, we are told, devising an alternative to Leveson based on "Royal Charter", a use of Royal prerogative created almost a millennium ago and used mainly in the medieval and early modern period.

A more opaque, Byzantine solution to the problem Leveson was seeking to address would be difficult to invent. A less democratic, open and transparent vehicle is hard to conceive.

At the same time a group of editors and senior executives are meeting, it is reported, on an almost daily basis to thrash out a new system of self-regulation that is "Leveson-compliant". We do not know how they define Leveson-compliant, or even who is meeting or when since the process is shrouded in darkness.

At no stage in the last three weeks have either the editors or the government sought to make the process open or sought to include the victims, civil society groups, or working journalists.

To devise a solution in such an occluded and secretive manner contradicts the first Levesonian principle. If it does not change it will be the second betrayal of the public and victims in almost as many weeks.

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How austere will Philip Hammond be?

The Chancellor must choose between softening or abandoning George Osborne's approach in his Autumn Statement. 

After becoming Chancellor, Philip Hammond was swift to confirm that George Osborne's budget surplus target would be abandoned. The move was hailed by some as the beginning of a new era of fiscal policy - but it was more modest than it appeared. Rather than a statement of principle, the abandonment of the 2019-20 target was merely an acceptance of reality. In the absence of additional spending cuts or tax rises, it would inevitably be missed (as Osborne himself recognised following the EU referendum). The decision did not represent, as some suggested, "the end of austerity".

Ahead of his first Autumn Statement on 23 November, the defining choice facing Hammond is whether to make a more radical break. As a new Resolution Foundation report notes, the Chancellor could either delay the surplus target (the conservative option) or embrace an alternative goal. Were he to seek a current budget suplus, rather than an overall one (as Labour pledged at the last general election), Hammond would avoid the need for further austerity and give himself up to £17bn of headroom. This would allow him to borrow for investment and to provide support for the "just managing" families (as Theresa May calls them) who will be squeezed by the continuing benefits freeze.

Alternatively, should Hammond merely delay Osborne's surplus target by a year (to 2020-21), he would be forced to impose an additional £9bn of tax rises or spending cuts. Were he to reject any further fiscal tightening, a surplus would not be achieved until 2023-24 - too late to be politically relevant. 

The most logical option, as the Resolution Foundation concludes, is for Hammond to target a current surplus. But since entering office, both he and May have emphasised their continuing commitment to fiscal conservatism ("He talks about austerity – I call it living within our means," the latter told Jeremy Corbyn at her first PMQs). For Hammond to abandon the goal of the UK's first budget surplus since 2001-02 would be a defining moment. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.