The Liberal Democrats may join Labour in supporting legislation to implement the recommendations of Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry into press standards, phone-hacking campaigners revealed last night.
Nick Clegg privately told members of the Hacked Off campaign group, including the comedian Steve Coogan, that there was nothing in the Coalition Agreement that prevented him from taking a different position on press regulation from the Conservatives.
He also repeated the comments he made last Sunday that he was prepared to support any "proportionate" response to the phone-hacking scandal including "backstop" legislation to create a new press complaints body.
Mr Clegg's comments are significant, as senior Tory figures have privately suggested they are opposed to implementing far-reaching press reforms – even if they are proposed by Lord Justice Leveson.
It raises the prospect that Labour and the Liberal Democrats could join forces to inflict a Parliamentary defeat on the Conservatives on an issue which they believe they have widespread public support for.
However, Mr Clegg's aides later played down the significance of his comments. They said they were confident that agreement could be reached within the Coalition on a satisfactory way forward. "We have had to deal with lots of difficult issues," they said. "I am sure we can find a common position on this."
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Coogan said he was concerned that there might be an attempt by some politicians to push the Leveson report – expected later the autumn – into the long grass. "My guess is that most people will give tacit lip service to what Lord Leveson proposes," he said.
"But what we might see is tactical obfuscation. Nick Clegg said he was not bound with his Coalition partners to act in unison on this. The Liberal Democrats can take their own position."
The former Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, who helps run the Hacked Off group, added: "He repeated again that if the Leveson recommendations were proportionate and workable they should be supported.
He did make the point that he is not bound by the Coalition programme to reach a common agreement with the Conservative party on this.
"It was obvious in the room that the mathematics in Parliament is that there is majority in Parliament in favour of backing the Leveson report if it's workable."
Mr Coogan said his campaign was not against press freedom which, he claimed, he was passionate about defending. "There is a lie being pedalled by some sections of the press that any kind of independent regulation underpinned by statute is an attack on press freedom," he said.
"We are all in favour of press freedoms. Journalists who pursue stories that are genuinely in the public interest should be protected and enabled. We want a healthier press. We don't want to curb their freedoms – we just want to them to behave in a more responsible and accountable way."
Rebekah Brooks appears in court
Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, along with her husband Charlie Brooks, and five former NI employees, will appear at the Old Bailey today. They will be asked whether they plead guilty or not guilty to charges of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, linked to Scotland Yard's phone-hacking investigation.
Six former executives of the now-closed News of the World, including former Downing Street communications chief Andy Coulson, former News of the World managing editor Stuart Kuttner and former private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, will also be in the same courtroom of the Old Bailey in connection with conspiracy charges relating to illegally intercepted phone messages.
Preparation for the criminal trial is taking place alongside the second wave of phone-hacking civil actions against NI. At least 155 new civil lawsuits were lodged at the High Court before the recent cut-off date of 14 September. Prominent names in the second wave of claimants include Cherie Blair, Geoffrey Robinson, Paul Burrell, Emma Noble, Lord Blencathra and Tony Woodley.