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Leveson: Cameron enters the unknown

It would be interesting to know exactly what was the deal reached between the Prime Minister and the newspaper publishers over his forcing a decisive vote on Leveson on Monday since this is a very high-risk strategy. Since he must know he will be defeated both in the Commons and Lords on this issue, there must be other considerations. Maybe he really did think that the gap was unbridgeable, and maybe he was right about that (despite all the claims by other parties that ‘agreement was close’), in which case he decided it was better to be seen to be bringing the matter to a head openly and robustly rather than drifting on in private before succumbing to the inevitable.

One is reminded of Osborne taking a similar line by confronting the EU with his refusal to accept their bonus cap even though he must have known it commanded otherwise universal support among other Member States. The latter case was to keep on side the bankers who provide half of total Tory party annual donations, the former to keep on side the newspaper lobby with an election just 2 years away.

It’s true that most of the outstanding issues probably could have been resolved. It had been proposed by Cameron/Letwin that the panel appointing the board of a reformed Press Complaints Commission (PCC) should include one serving editor and that no one could be appointed to the board without the unanimous support of the appointment panel. This obviously gave the press a veto over the membership of the body supposed to regulate them, and that is clearly unacceptable. But it is difficult to believe the Tories would have gone to the stake over that.

The Tory proposals also tried to circumscribe the rights of the PCC to secure remedial action over press complaints by saying it could require such action, but not how it might be carried out, i.e. the wording of the apology and whare it should go in the paper (on page 1 or 3 or 36 or whatever). The PCC should clearly have the power to ‘direct’ how the apology should be handled, but again this was unlikely to be a game-breaker. In addition it was already agreed between the parties that if newspaper publishers refused to join the revamped PCC (the Richard Desmond issue) and then breached the code, they would be subject to exemplary damages.

That leaves what was always the key issue: statutory underpinning of a Royal Charter or any other mechanism. Cameron has once again chosen to throw down the gauntlet – as he did over the eurozone treaty, the EU budget, gay marriage, and sticking to austerity – but it is a risk with collateral damage he cannot escape indefinitely.

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