Robert Buckland MP is Joint Secretary of the 1922 Committee and Chairs the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission
After fifteen months of public inquiry and three months of negotiation, the Leveson process is nearing its climax. A deal on the wording of a Royal Charter and the precise extent of any accompanying legislation is likely to be confirmed. Otherwise MPs will be facing what has been termed “an historic decision” about the future of our free press. Yes, a legislative version of the Battle of Gettysburg is upon us. The accidental battleground over which this verbal war is to be waged is the report stage of the Crime and Courts Bill, which is as unlikely a setting for this drama as that small Pennsylvanian village was for the turning point of the American Civil War one hundred and fifty years ago.
After the Prime Minister’s surprise announcement on Thursday morning that he was breaking off negotiations about the implementation of the Leveson proposals, initial concerns about the suitability of the Bill for provisions relating to press regulation gave way to a free for all which saw both sides dashing about with drafts and re-drafts of their respective amendments. MPs are now being expected to make decisions on amendments that have only just emerged from the Public Bill Office with the ink still glistening upon them.
The slew of comment pieces in yesterday's newspapers, with their references to slippery slopes and a descent into dictatorship, seems to bear little relationship to what appears on the Order Paper tomorrow. My reading of the Bill documents has been punctuated by phone calls from colleagues and a slew of emails from constituents urging me to do one thing or the other on the issue. There will be no need to prepare a lengthy speech for the debate, because in the proposed Programme Motion, only three hours have been allocated for it. J Alfred Prufrock MP is alive and well at this hour.
What, then, are backbenchers to make of it all? Firstly, it is worth reminding ourselves what Leveson came up with. Did he advocate a system of regulation that would have made a 20th Century dictator proud? Not a bit of it. He proposed a self-regulatory system of press regulation whose membership would remain voluntary, but with some incentives for those who join the system rather than remaining outside. The independent regulator should be verified by an independent board whose sole job will be to check that the regulatory system was working as it should. This part of the Leveson Report really has nothing to do with the day-to-day work of journalists. Of far greater relevance to their work are the Leveson proposals that relate to data protection, which I have huge reservations about and which are not the subject of tomorrow’s debate.
It is worth recalling why the Prime Minister decided to appoint an Inquiry in the first place, too. Some parts of our national press were behaving in ways that affected the lives of innocent people, who were not able to gain appropriate redress for the wrongs that had been done to them. Recourse to costly court actions in libel and breach of privacy remain far out of the reach of most of us, and for the victims of phone hacking, the fact that they remained unaware of this abuse for years made it impossible for the police and criminal justice system to take action too. After years and years of final chances, crunch time has surely come.
In this endgame, then, what is left to debate? Having read both the Government’s draft Royal Charter and that proposed by the Labour Party, the differences between them can hardly be described as massive. I believe that the nature of the differences between the two documents boils down to two key issues: whether or not appointments to the new Regulator should be truly independent of the press and whether the new regulator should have the power to “direct” appropriate remedial action by those in breach of their standards (Lib/Lab Charter), as opposed to having the power to “require” appropriate remedial action (Government Charter).
A truly independent regulator simply has to be able to make appointments in a way that does not give the industry that it is supposed to be regulating an effective veto. As for “require” versus “direct”, people can be forgiven for believing them to be one and the same thing. There is, however, a small but important difference. A “direction” implies mandatory compliance, which is essential if we are to see appropriate remedies for breaches, such as apologies printed with an equal degree of prominence as the original article.
The essence of the argument is no longer a question of whether there should be any legislative underpinning, but a matter of how far this underpinning should go. By tabling about a dozen amendments creating a regime of aggravated damages and increased costs that will apply to those media outlets that choose not to come within the new regulatory system, the Government has already crossed its legislative Rubicon. The Opposition amendments, which already have the support of the Lib Dems and other minority parties, represent a position that, in the absence of a final deal on the terms of a Royal Charter, will be necessary to set out in legislation the terms of reference for an independent regulator that would otherwise have been contained within a Charter. I hope that an agreement can be reached that delivers the Leveson principles. A debate in the Commons could be full of sound and fury, but if it ends up signifying nothing then that will be a damaging failure for all of us.