Strong words in the Lords today about the media and the government’s stance on Leveson, but what are the discussions like between the three parties behind the scenes?
Though they started off with some similarly stern words, the cross-party talks on the response to the Leveson report have, all sides agree, been progressing well. Far from the communication breakdown that some envisaged, there has been a relatively pleasant atmosphere. The Lib Dems and Labour, though they disagree with the Conservative line, are both keen to praise Oliver Letwin in particular for the way he is conducting the discussions, and for going away and working on the details discussed in each session.
Some progress has been made on the detail of the undertakings for media organisations, but Labour is refusing to budge on the fundamental principle of statutory underpinning. A party source tells me:
‘In a number of ways we are making real progress in terms of the detail: we’ve agreed that the undertakings should be on the fuller side rather than lacking in detail. But the Royal Charter is still complex: it’s uncharted territory, it’s a known unknown. it’s a very unusual way of trying to sort of pass what is meant to be regulation.’
The party says that a crunch vote on the issue at the end of January is still very much on the cards, and a series of meetings next week could indicate whether this would result in a humiliating defeat for the government.
From their side, the pro-statute Tories believe that their numbers have not reduced over the Christmas recess, with 44 Conservative MPs prepared to publicly support it, while the number of those backing the principle in private has not changed either. Although those sitting at the table have been shown the draft legislation for the Royal Charter, those outside have not: it has not yet been published publicly. When this does emerge into the public domain, it will open up any dividing lines within this group: some MPs could well be satisfied with the Royal Charter if it can be shown to work.
One of the problems that both those in favour of and against statute cite is that the charter itself could well require some form of statute. So the mechanism by which the government hopes to avoid statutory underpinning could well have statutory underpinning itself.
The newspaper editors will meet with the parties again next week to sketch out their proposal for a charitable trust to back the independent regulator. With Labour trying to work out how much support it has for a late January vote, it could be a pivotal week for the Leveson discussions.
Is Leveson a fundamental threat to a free press? On Wednesday 30 January, the Spectator hosts a debate between advocates of statutory regulation Chris Bryant and Max Mosley and those against statute, Richard Littlejohn, Paul Staines and John Whittingdale. You can book tickets here.
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