By Matthew Barrett
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The Leveson Inquiry reports next week, and the Prime Minister's response has, understandably, been of keen interest to those in Westminster and on Fleet Street. This morning's newspapers will please those in Fleet Street: the Prime Minister is apparently of a mind to reject the prospect of statutory regulation of the press, which Lord Justice Leveson is widely expected to recommend.
The Prime Minister will instead favour some level of tighter regulation to make the press more responsible. The leading proposal that protects the independence of the press while enforcing higher standards is that of Lord Hunt, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, and Lord Black, of the Telegraph Media Group. Their proposal, which has been found acceptable by all newspapers, would establish an independent regulator able to administer heavy fines.
The Independent on Sunday suggests another proposal for compromise would be the introduction of statutory regulation but with a "sunset clause" in the Bill that Parliament would consider, meaning that the legislation would have to be renewed by fresh parliamentary consent and would expire if deemed to be a failure. If this proposal were to be explored, the timing of the "sunset" period would be of particular interest to anti-statutory-regulators, since not all parties are as committed to press freedom, and whoever wins a majority at the next election could decide the permanent fate of any such Bill.
The rationale for rejecting Lord Justice Leveson's proposals, the Mail on Sunday says, will be that Mr Cameron cannot wait the years it might take to craft the legislation that would be necessary to implement statutory regulation. The independent regulatory idea would take only months to set up, and could be portrayed as the more effective option.
Now for the politics of it all. Within Cabinet, a number of the Prime Minister's most trusted inner-circle colleagues, including Michael Gove, George Osborne and William Hague, are said to oppose state regulation, along with others like Eric Pickles and Iain Duncan Smith. Outside Cabinet, that not-so-inner-circle Tory, Boris Johnson, has been loudly campaigning for the press to remain unmolested by state regulation. Indeed, at the Spectator awards this week, Mr Johnson told MPs present: "don’t you for one moment think about regulating a press that has been free in this city for more than 300 years".
Outside Cabinet, many Conservative MPs and Ministers are known to oppose the statutory route. Many also favour it, of course. Earlier this month, 42 Conservative parliamentarians wrote a letter heralding the "once in a generation opportunity to put things right" that Leveson offered.
More generally, the Government is likely to have a difficult fortnight ahead. The Leveson report is released on Thursday, and a Commons debate on it will be held a week tomorrow. Then two days later, on the 5th December, the Autumn Statement will be delivered by the Chancellor. The Prime Minister will therefore probably try and opt for the proposal with least controversy. The Lords Hunt and Black proposal may be just the ticket.
A Number 10 source is quoted, as you might expect, denying the Prime Minister has any preference for a certain choice of press regulation: "You cannot have a discussion about a proposal which doesn't exist. He wants to wait until the full report comes out and consider that very carefully."