The Conservatives publish their plans for a Royal Charter to underpin regulation of the press today. Although the cross-party talks have been more successful than most imagined, with no rows or public posturing, today is the day when that consensus is tested.
There’s also another test on the way for the three parties, which is the return of the Defamation Bill to the Commons towards the end of February or start of March. This Bill was amended last week by peers – including Tories – to include low-cost arbitration for members of a press regulator, overseen by a ‘recognition commission’ and a statutory requirement for pre-notification. This amendment, an attempt at ‘Leveson by the back door’, will come down to the Commons for ping-pong (when MPs vote on whether to accept Lords amendments) shortly after the Bill’s third reading in the Upper Chamber on 25 February. There were 12 Tory peers who voted in favour of the amendment: will pro-statute Conservative MPs in the Commons such as George Eustice and Nadhim Zahawi support that amendment too?
One of the interesting questions for the Conservatives today is whether their Royal Charter really does anything to avoid the statutory underpinning recommended by Leveson that David Cameron rejected? It’s a question Labour and pro-statute Conservatives have already raised, as there’s a chance that the Royal Charter underpinning press regulation will need statutory underpinning of its own. It would also need renewing by politicians once a decade, which hardly takes government out of the picture.
The Tories believe this is the solution that will maintain the consensus and enable the government to implement the bulk of Leveson’s recommendations. The Lib Dems and Labour have yet to say whether they will support it, but have expressed concerns about the plan, and the pro-statute Conservatives are similarly waiting to see the Charter. But this is the only deal on the table, which means disagreement will take the parties back to the drawing board once again.
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