Yesterday, last-minute talks were taking place to avert a political crisis.
On one level, the future system of press regulation was at stake. On another was the wellbeing of the Coalition government, with the Tories split from their Liberal Democrat partners.
The prospect of the Liberal Democrats joining with Labour, not to mention Conservative rebels, in tonight’s Commons vote on implementation of the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry into press standards was sharpening minds at Westminster.
In truth, the differences between them have never been great. Both sides now believe press governance by royal charter is preferable. The Nick Clegg-Ed Miliband axis wanted newspapers to be forced to publish apologies, David Cameron said pressure should be brought to bear. Mr Clegg and Mr Miliband wished to accommodate third-party pressure groups bringing complaints; Mr Cameron said third parties could, if the issues raised are in the public interest. Labour and the Lib-Dems were keen to prevent the press having a veto on the appointment of members of the regulatory board.
That is pretty much it. Which brings us to the main point of divergence: the Prime Minister said that the writ of his royal charter should run without the aid of statute; his opponents maintain that it should be enshrined in law, and that some legislation is required.
This newspaper, like Mr Clegg and Mr Miliband, believes that a light form of statute, “a dab”, is needed. Ideally, we would not desire it. Press freedom is sacrosanct and must embrace the notion of being able to operate without interference from Parliament. The Commons and Lords are full of MPs and peers who would love to get their teeth into the press, relishing the chance of revenge for previous wounds. A precedent would be set, as Mr Cameron said; the “Rubicon” would be crossed and control of the press would be on a “slippery slope”. However, what we support is not a full-blown “press law”, or the detailed act that Hacked Off, the press reform lobbying group, originally sought.
Having rejected Leveson’s recommendation of statute, on the grounds that Parliament should not hold sway over the press, Mr Cameron, advised by Oliver Letwin, came up with the idea of a royal charter.
This is a device applied to the oversight of institutions from the Bank of England to Cambridge University and the BBC. But royal charters are administered by the Privy Council, which comprises senior politicians meeting in secret (the word “privy” means just that). Mr Cameron seemingly has little issue with such a body dictating press regulation. The scope for amendment without open consultation is obvious. Far better to apply a brake, requiring changes to the charter to be debated in Parliament, and only if two-thirds majorities in both Houses approve them.
That is more appealing than the Cameron model of only royal charter. It’s more attractive, too, than the sort of lengthy statute that some campaigners would prefer. Privy Council, with all its mystery, or Parliament, with cameras, and even then, if only two-thirds agree? Put like that, it is difficult to side with the argument that the Clegg-Miliband formula is a rejection of everything we hold dear.
The press have got themselves to this point – though not all its members. We would feel fully entitled to turn around and reject a new framework, on the grounds that we did not hack phones, or pay paparazzis, or bribe public servants. However, we recognise the need for the restoration of trust, which must begin with a better means of regulation.