U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition was split over whether to accept in full the recommendations of a press inquiry he set up and to pass laws to back up a new media regulator.
The Conservative premier said that while he supports the principles of Judge Brian Leveson’s report into media ethics published earlier today, he believes new legislation is unnecessary and would represent the first attempt by government to pass laws about the press in centuries. That put him at odds both with Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and with the opposition Labour Party.
“Once you start writing a piece of legislation that backs up an independent regulator, you have to write into that what are its powers, what is its makeup,” Cameron told the House of Commons in London today, 90 minutes after Leveson published his call for an oversight body with statutory underpinning. “That’s the concern, and that’s the Rubicon you’ve got to think very carefully before you cross.”
The prime minister stopped short of ruling out a new law, instead repeatedly stressing that it might be more difficult than envisaged by its supporters.
“He’s not absolutely ruling it out, he’s saying it would be a big step,” Cameron’s spokesman Steve Field told reporters. “The legal changes being proposed are something we need to look at in detail.” He said it was “entirely possible” there would be a free vote on the report, with government lawmakers not obliged to support a party line.
In a break from the usual parliamentary convention, Clegg gave a statement immediately after Cameron, disagreeing with the premier and saying Leveson wasn’t proposing an “illiberal state regulator.”
“This isn’t and cannot be characterized as a statutory regulator of the press,” Clegg told lawmakers. He said he hoped an agreement could be reached. “The absolute worst outcome in all of this would be for nothing to happen at all.”
Leveson proposed an independent watchdog with the power to issue fines of as much as 1 million pounds ($1.6 million) for serious journalistic infractions, and that news organizations that decline to join the system should face higher civil damages if they’re sued by victims. Though the judge didn’t propose forcing news organizations to join the regulator, he did say legislation would be needed to give it a legal framework.
Labour leader Ed Miliband welcomed Cameron’s invitation to begin immediate cross-party talks and said he hoped the prime minister would change his mind on the issue of legislation.
“The case is compelling,” Miliband said. “The evidence is overwhelming. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make change the public can trust. There can be no more last- chance saloons.”
The last line was an echo of a comment by a former Conservative Culture Secretary, David Mellor, in 1991 that the press was “drinking in the last-chance saloon” and would need to improve its behavior or face statutory regulation.
Even before Clegg had spoken, Liberal Democrat lawmakers signaled their discontent. “We’re not being asked by Leveson to cross a Rubicon,” Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat party president, told Cameron. “It’s barely even a brook.”
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