U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said yesterday he wants a system of media regulation that has support from the opposition Labour Party. He may not even get the support of his coalition partners or his own lawmakers.
Brian Leveson, the judge appointed by Cameron last year to conduct an inquiry into media ethics in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal at News Corp.’s News of the World tabloid, will announce his findings at 1.30 p.m. today in London. Cameron, who was given the report yesterday, will give his initial response in Parliament 60 minutes later. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg will make a separate statement after that.
Cameron assembled a team from his Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats, who are led by Clegg, in his Downing Street office this morning in a bid to agree on a joint position on regulation.
“We should try to work across party lines on this issue,” Cameron told Parliament during his weekly questions session yesterday. “What matters most, I believe, is that we end up with an independent regulatory system that can deliver.”
Clegg, who discussed the report with Cameron last night, hinted early today that they might have reached an agreement.
“Everybody wants two things: firstly a strong, independent, raucous press who can hold people in positions of power to account,” he told reporters as he left his London home for work. “And secondly to protect ordinary people, the vulnerable, the innocent when the press overstep the mark. That’s the balance we’re trying to strike, and I’m sure we will.”
Even so, Clegg’s office announced that the deputy premier will make a separate statement to the Commons once Cameron has finished.
The move, in contrast to the usual practice of letting the prime minister speak for the whole government, reflects the seriousness of the issues and the report, rather than a disagreement between the two men, according to the deputy premier’s office.
It’s the latest example of how Britain’s first coalition government since World War II is having to rewrite conventions in order to accommodate power-sharing.
The premier’s Tory lawmakers are themselves divided about how a press-regulation system should be enforced. Earlier this month, 42 of them signed a letter calling for a new regulator to replace the existing Press Complaints Commission, which is run by the newspaper industry, to be backed by legislation.
More than 80 lawmakers from all sides, including all the Conservative members of Parliament’s Culture Committee, then put their names to a letter published yesterday rejecting a statutory basis for regulation.
Clegg, whose party was attacked by Conservative-supporting papers in the run-up to and after the 2010 election, told Leveson’s inquiry that the Liberal Democrats were concerned too much power was concentrated in the hands of News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch.
News Corp. publishes three U.K. national newspapers, even after closing the News of the World last year as the hacking scandal escalated, and has a 40 percent stake in British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc (BSY), the biggest pay-television operator.
Clegg said he wanted a regulatory system that ensured accountability and protected freedom of the press. He said he would be open to a statutory system to ensure all newspapers join in.
Today’s report may contain criticism of Cameron himself over his closeness to Murdoch and his executives. In the course of the inquiry, Cameron and three former prime ministers, as well as a third of his Cabinet, testified about their relationship with the press.
Text messages released to the inquiry between Cameron and former News Corp. executive Rebekah Brooks, who’s now awaiting trial on charges including phone hacking and bribery, showed she told him they were “in it together” before he became prime minister. Their country homes were near each other, and she invited him for a “country supper.”
Cameron also hired former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his press chief in 2007. Coulson, who quit that job last year, is awaiting trial on charges of phone hacking, bribery and perjury.
Media groups have said any backing for a new regulator in law would threaten a free press. Guy Black, a director of the Telegraph Media Group, and David Hunt, the chairman of the PCC, have proposed a new regulatory system with binding contracts and fines.
The National Union of Journalists criticized the Hunt-Black model as not offering enough protection to individual reporters who might be asked to break the law by their editors. The Guardian, Independent and Financial Times newspapers have also rejected it as insufficiently independent of the press.
Cameron too indicated yesterday that he thinks the plan doesn’t go far enough.
“The status quo, I would argue, does not just need updating; the status quo is unacceptable and needs to change,” he told lawmakers before returning to his office to read Leveson’s report. “People should be able to rely on a good regulatory system as well, in order to get the redress they want, whether prominent apologies, fines for newspapers or the other things that are clearly so necessary.”
He signaled partial agreement with Conservative Philip Davies, who argued that the press wouldn’t be free if it were regulated by the state.
“A free press is absolutely vital for a healthy democracy,” Cameron said. “That is vitally important and, whatever the changes we make, we want a robust and free press in our country.”
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