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Cameron forced to backtrack over Leveson

ameron has just, shortly before 1pm today, conceded a deal over the Leveson proposals for press regulation which provides for everything that the Labour & LibDem parties were demanding. He did that, not because he believes it, but because he knew he would lose the vote and will do anything to avoid the humiliation of a parliamentary defeat. It is a triumph for Ed Miliband and his Labour team who have (rightly) not tried to rub his face in it – however much he might deserve it, given his back-room cabals with the newspaper publishers to block a new democratic settlement at any cost – but have consented to tease out an all-party agreement as being the best solution, so long as it contains all the elements needed to ensure that an abusive press can be effectively held to account. And this agreement does contain that.

A so-called ‘Recognition Panel’ will be established by Royal Charter – an ancient constitutional anachronism, but still worth using if it secures all-party agreement and at the same time can provide genuine and effective accountability. Its function is to make sure that the new regulator (replacing the discredited Press Complaints Commission) remains independent and effective. There will be no political or press interference in the appointment of the Recognition Panel (though it is still not clear exactly how it will be constituted). Nor will the press have the veto they were demanding over who sits on the board of the regulator – indeed it shows their arrogance that they even contemplated such an idea.

The new regulator will have much greater powers than the previous desultory PCC. I twill be able to direct apologies and corrections, and it will have powers of investigation that could lead to fines ranging up to £1 million. There will also be an arbitration system which will be free for complainants. The system of self-regulation will be voluntary, but with the important proviso that newspapers that refuse to join up to the new framework will, if they breach the new press code, be subject to stiff penalties of exemplary damages – an answer to the churlish Richar Desmond walk-out problem.

Most crucially the Recognition Panel will be underpinned by law to prevent ministers from watering it down. The Labour Royal Charter plan differs from the Tory one in 3 important respects. It will be underwritten by legislation to stop politicians from tampering with it by amending it through the Privy Council. There will be no veto over appointments to the new regulator, as both the Tories and the press wanted. And the new regulator will have real teeth, with prpoer investigative powers and the right to determine the adequacy of apologies and to ensure their prominent positioning in the newspaper.

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