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18 March 2013

David Cameron caves in over Leveson

The Tories accept Labour and Lib Dem demands for statutory underpinning of a Royal Charter to establish a new press regulator.

By George Eaton

After talks that lasted until 2:30am in Ed Miliband’s offiice, the three main parties are close to reaching an agreement on press regulation – and it is the Conservatives who have given way. A Labour source told The Staggers: “we are confident we have the basis of an agreement around our Royal Charter entrenched in statute”. The Tories, represented by Oliver Letwin at the talks (Miliband, Clegg and Harriet Harman were also present), have accepted three of Labour and the Lib Dems’ key demands: 

-That the Royal Charter will be underpinned by law, so that it can only be amended by a two-thirds majority in Parliament, rather than by ministers at will. 

-That the press will not be able to veto appointments to the board of the new industry regulator.

-That the independent regulator will have the power to “direct” how newspaper apologies are made, rather than merely “requiring” them to be made. Papers, for instance, will be ordered to publish front page corrections, rather than bury them elsewhere.  

Despite these concessions, the Tories are claiming success on the basis that they have avoided the wider version of statutory underpinning originally demanded by Miliband and Clegg. Earlier this year, Harman said of the Tories’ proposal of a Royal Charter: “It’s a bit like Dolly the sheep, it might look like a sheep, but we do not know if it will do all the thing that a sheep is supposed to do”. But Labour and the Lib Dems have now accepted that a Royal Charter, rather than a formal press law, is the appropriate mechanism to establish the new regulator.

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A Tory source told the Daily Mail: “We have not caved. It is a near as dammit our version of Royal Charter. The entrenchment clause has been rewritten”. But “near as dammit” means Miliband and Clegg can still chalk this up as a major political victory. We’ll get the full details when a statement is made in the House of Commons later today. 

Update: Speaking on Sky News, Harriet Harman has just confirmed that “agreement has been reached” and that there will no longer be a Commons vote held today. She later told the Today programme that there will be “a small piece of legislation” in the House of Lords “which will say you can’t tamper with or water down this charter”. However, she conceded that this was not the form of statutory underpinning originally demanded by Labour and the Lib Dems: “The framework is set up in a Royal Charter, not by statute”. That will aid the Tories’ attempts to argue that it is ultimately the pro-Leveson camp that has given most ground. 

Harman also said that the new regulator would have the power to order newspapers to publish front page corrections and that Hacked Off would be “very pleased by the outcome”. The key question, however, isn’t whether the Tories or Labour think they’ve “won” but what the press makes of it all. The credibility of the new regulator will depend on the participation of all papers. 

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