David Cameron's gamble in siding with the press over Leveson's recommendations could backfire

The Prime Minister is trying to have the best of both worlds - or the worst of both - by calling a review and then avoid the awkward consequences

Share

David Cameron has chosen to ally himself with the still mighty newspapers rather than the judge he appointed to review their conduct. Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have backed the judge and risk the wrath of the newspapers. The clash is over a relatively small issue of little interest to the voters. Nonetheless, the divide highlights profoundly diverging views about what constitutes “freedom”, and shows the degree to which leaders dare to challenge newspapers rather than woo them.

I have no doubt Cameron has come out against statutory underpinning of newspapers partly out of principle. He and most of his Cabinet colleagues have a deep wariness of the state in all its manifestations, at least as deep as that felt by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. It would have been quite something to witness small-state Conservatives in the Cabinet putting the case for even the most modest statutory underpinning but it was never going to happen.

Flexible

Even so, Cameron must have known when he commissioned the Leveson review that statutory enforcement might be a possible recommendation. Not for the first time, he has sought the best of both worlds, or the least worst of both, by calling a review and then seeking to avoid the awkward consequences. While he acts out of conviction in this case, he is a leader of flexible beliefs when necessary. On past evidence, he would have been flexible if all the newspapers were urging him to implement Leveson in full.

Instead, the self-proclaimed moderniser who side-stepped modernisation of his party has sought to show he understood the anguish of the newspapers’ victims and then acted to ensure he was on the same side as the newspapers.

Ed Miliband is being genuinely bold in supporting Leveson against all newspapers. He does so with a degree of anxiety. He is not daft. He knows that it is neither an easy place to be nor possibly a politically safe one. But he regards, with good cause, a change in Britain’s media culture to be as important as the reforms to financial markets that are still required following the 2008 crash. Cameron leads a party that looks still to the 1980s for ideological guidance. Miliband is convinced we are living through an era of tumultuous change that demands radical rethinking of assumptions. So far, most risks he has taken have been vindicated by events.

This time, he has Nick Clegg as an ally. Clegg’s speech yesterday was far more important for its substance than for the admittedly vivid symbolism of a Deputy Prime Minister advancing from the front bench a different case to that of the Prime Minister. If the issue had been the economy or, indeed, pubic service reform, the sequence would mark the end of the Coalition. The two leaders can survive easily a difference over how newspapers are regulated.

Still Clegg made a vitally important point in highlighting that “freedom” takes many forms. While newspapers must retain the freedom to hold the powerful to account, they cannot be free to wreck the lives of the vulnerable and weak.

Astute

The judge has left it to the politicians to decide. In his final act, Leveson has shown that he is an astute politician, too – he supports self-regulation, while presenting the legislative role as a “guarantee” to newspaper freedoms and to effective self-regulation. This is a clever way of putting it and an accurate one. The idea that such legislation marks a form of state control is absurd paranoia. As Leveson stated several times: “This is not statutory regulation of the press.” He added deliberately: “The victims and public would not accept anything less.”

In that single mischievous sentence, Cameron’s chosen judge makes clear that, in his view, a more modest set of proposals is unacceptable. The view at Westminster is that Cameron made a series of smart moves in his response. For sure, George Osborne looked cheerful, perhaps contemplating a return to working informally with newspapers to destroy Miliband and Labour, hopes interrupted by the fury of some titles that Cameron had the temerity to set up this inquiry.

I doubt if what follows will be so straightforward; a smooth path for the PM in alliance with the press and a thorny one for the other leaders. In times of sweeping change, the more cautious position often proves to be very risky. In terms of political calculation, it is Cameron who starts out with the more cautious position.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Gold Ferrari sits outside Chanel on Sloane Street  

Sunday Times Rich List: We are no longer in thrall to very rich people

Terence Blacker
David Cameron was openly emotional at the prospect of Scotland leaving the union before the referendum  

General election 2015: Remember when David Cameron almost cried over Scotland because he loved it so much?

Matthew Norman
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence