Historic Deal on Freedom of Press

The Evening Standard (London, England), March 18, 2013 | Go to article overview

Historic Deal on Freedom of Press


Byline: Nicholas Cecil and Joe Murphy

A HISTORIC deal on press regulation was reached today by party leaders just hours before a showdown vote in the Commons.

David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg buried key differences on setting up a new regulator in the wake of the phone hacking scandal.

But a war of words erupted with all three racing to claim victory after hours of negotiations into the early hours.

It also remained to be seen whether newspaper chiefs would back the agreement, especially after it emerged that campaign group Hacked Off were present at the crunch 2.30am talks in Mr Miliband's office.

The deal will see: A royal charter set up to establish a new independent press regulator.

A clause in law restricting any changes to new royal charters created from this March.

The regulator being able to "direct" rather than just "require" newspapers to apologise for blunders.

Editors will have no veto over people who sit on the regulator.

But the parties were still bitterly divided over the meaning of the compromise agreement with the Conservatives firmly rejecting Labour and Liberal Democrat claims that it amounted to backing in law for the regulator as proposed by the Leveson Inquiry.

Mr Cameron said: "It was important to avoid a press law. That would be dangerous. That's not going to happen. That Continued on Page 4

Continued from Page 1 was what was secured and that is why this is a good deal." The Prime Minister stressed the clause did not amount to "statutory underpinning" but meant that politicians would not be able to easily "fiddle" with the royal charter.

The Tories also denied claims that Hacked Off actually drafted the key clause on royal charters. A senior Conservative source was claiming a "fundamental victory" as there is no mention of the press in the key clause of changes to royal charters.

But Mr Miliband said: "What we've agreed is essentially the royal charter that Nick Clegg and I published on Friday, it will be underpinned by statute -- why is that important? Because it stops ministers or the press meddling with it or watering it down in the future.

"It will be a regulator, a system of complaints where the regulator has teeth so they can direct apologies if wrong is done and it is independent of the press, which is so important because for too long we have had a system where the press have been marking their own homework."

The Liberal Democrat leader added "it's pretty well exactly what I hoped for", insisting that the charter would be underpinned by legislation. "I think we have struck the right balance by protecting the freedom of the press and making sure that innocent people cannot be unjustifiably harassed and bullied by powerful people in the press," he added.

The details of the proposals were being announced to MPs. But key to it will be a new clause in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, meaning it would require a two thirds majority in both the Commons and Lords to amend the royal charter.

A Labour source accused the Conservatives of trying to save face, insisting: "This is not a little bit of statute, this is not a dab of statute, this is statute pure and simple." Senior Conservative Oliver Letwin led the talks with Mr Miliband, shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman and Mr Clegg, with a Hacked Off representative present. A bitter dispute was spreading at Westminster over who drafted the key com-promise clause. Responding to the deal, Hacked Off said: "Talks have made encouraging progress. Victims are heartened by party leaders living up to their word ... still some questions remain over the incentives to get newspapers to join the scheme."

Hacked Off had four representatives in Mr Miliband's office as the talks progressed.

Brian Cathcart attended the talks with Hacked Off 's chairman Hugh Tomlinson, QC, associate director and former Lib-Dem MP Evan Harris and Martin Moore an adviser to the campaign. …

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