DAVID Cameron and Nick Clegg were locked in talks last night to try to avert a damaging split in the coalition over the recommendations of the Leveson Report into press standards.
There was also evidence of a deep Tory divide over the prospect of statutory regulation, which is widely expected to be at the heart of Lord Leveson’s report.
The Prime Minister yesterday warned the “status quo” of press regulation was “unacceptable and needs to change”.
Speaking ahead of what is likely to
be a pivotal day for the British press and freedom of speech, the Prime Minister called for cross-party co-operation in the wake of the report.
Half a dozen advance copies were delivered to Downing Street yesterday morning. Mr Cameron and his Liberal Democrat deputy have been poring over the weighty document – which sources say is 2,000 pages long and highly detailed – trying to agree a joint approach.
Mr Clegg is reportedly ready to
support the rapid creation of a regulator with statutory underpinning – a move that would be implacably opposed by many Tories.
Aides have asked Speaker John Bercow whether Mr Clegg can make a separate statement to MPs if no deal has been struck by the time the premier gets to his feet at 3pm today.
Mr Bercow’s office said last night it was ready to accommodate the request. A final decision will not be taken until senior ministers from both parties meet just before the
report is published today.
But the PM’s spokesman played down the prospect of the Lib Dem leader making a separate response to Leveson in the Commons.
“There is a statement from the government, and the Prime Minister is making that statement,” the spokesman said.
Dozens of Conservative MPs have signed a letter warning that accepting a recommendation of statutory regulation of the press would undermine free speech – days after 42 Tory MPs urged tough new laws to keep newspapers in check.
Labour’s Kate Hoey and Frank Field, and Lib Dem John Hemming also backed the letter. There is also a suggestion Mr Cameron could offer parliament a free vote rather than try to force through measures and
suffer a damaging rebellion.
The inquiry was launched after it emerged that News International had been involved in widespread hacking of phones, together with allegations that journalists paid police officers for information.
The controversy has left the Prime Minister under personal pressure following the arrests of his close friend, former chief executive of News International Rebekah Brooks, and his former spin doctor, Andy Coulson, who was editor of the News of the World.
Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons yesterday, Mr Cameron said he wanted to end up with an “independent regulatory system that can deliver”.
“This government set up Leveson because of unacceptable practices in parts of the media and because of a failed regulatory system,” he said. “I am looking forward to reading the report carefully.
“I am sure all members will want to consider it carefully. I think we should try and work across party lines on this issue. It is right to meet with other party leaders about this issue, and I will do so.
“What matters most, I believe, is that we end up with an independent regulatory system that can deliver and in which the public have confidence.”
Asked by Tory MP Henry Smith whether the status quo needed to be updated, Mr Cameron replied: “The status quo doesn’t just need updating; the status quo is unacceptable and needs to change.”
He added: “One of the key things that the Leveson inquiry is trying to get to the bottom of is how can you have a strong, independent regulatory system so you don’t have to wait for the wheels of the criminal justice system or the libel system to work?
“People should be able to rely on a good regulatory system as well, to get the sort of redress they want, whether that is prominent apologies or fines for newspapers or the other things that are clearly so necessary.”
Labour leader Ed Miliband insisted he wanted “real change”. He said: “I hope we can work on an all-party basis. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for real change, and I hope this House can make it happen.”
But divisions were underlined in further interventions, with former defence secretary Liam Fox arguing in favour of maintaining a free press, but providing “greater access to the justice system, so that the laws of defamation and libel aren’t only open to the rich and famous”.
Tory MP Philip Davies asked the Prime Minister to remember that “a free press is vital for a
Meanwhile, Britain’s oldest political magazine insisted it would refuse to join any regulatory system enforced by the government. The Spectator said it could not accept a scheme
that “subordinates press to parliament”.
“If the press agrees a new form of self-regulation, perhaps contractually binding this time, we will happily take part,” the magazine’s leader column said. “But we would not sign up to anything enforced by
Actor Hugh Grant, a director of Hacked Off, a group that says its aim is a “free and accountable press”, who gave evidence to the inquiry, said he wanted “independent regulation underpinned by statute”, which would likely involve parliament giving more powers to whatever replaces the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).
But the Free Speech Network, which counts national newspaper publishers among its supporters, has called for “tough, independent self-regulation”.
It said a planned new system could offer “speedy redress” to people who complained about the press and would levy fines of
up to £1 million on publishers who failed to comply with the Editor’s Code.
It also promised the new trust board would have “majorities of lay people, independently appointed”.
News International’s chief executive backed calls for a “tough” new press watchdog, but warned state-backed regulation would put too much power in the hands of politicians.
Tom Mockridge, who replaced Mrs Brooks at News International, said there needed to be “fundamental” reform of media regulation, but insisted anything other than an independent system would “cross the Rubicon”.