There was a curious meeting of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee this morning. The MPs took evidence from Oliver Letwin and Maria Miller, and then from Harriet Harman, on press regulation. An evidence session with Oliver Letwin is curious enough anyway, as the Minister for Government Policy does tend to speak as though he’s reading from a will, complete with codicils.

But what was really rum was that everyone in the room seemed to be talking about quite different systems of press regulation. Miller and Letwin were eerily cheery, repeatedly telling committee chair John Whittingdale that they were ‘the optimist in this case’, and that their plans were not statutory regulation. Miller even objected to the idea that the industry might not be keen. ‘We haven’t yet set this up, so to say that people have decided not to participate is a little premature,’ she told Philip Davies. Both ministers gave the impression that now those cross-party talks were over, deciding the future of press regulation was a lovely experience, like skipping happily through a sunlit meadow. It all sounded wonderful.

But a group of Tory MPs involved in questioning the ministers saw the whole thing in a rather different light: statutory underpinning of regulation that wasn’t supported by the press. ‘What I don’t understand,’ said Tracey Crouch, terribly politely, ‘is how it can be claimed that this isn’t any kind of statutory regulation.’ Crouch listed the publications opposed to the settlement drawn up by the three parties, and, still ever so politely, asked how ministers could really believe they had satisfied Lord Justice Leveson’s criteria for a system of regulation that would work. Her questions were excellent: the Tory MP also asked Letwin which freedom of speech campaign groups backed his plans. ‘I don’t know what campaign groups are in favour of against these proposals,’ he said, that cheerily eerie smile still fixed in place.

And then there was a third system of press regulation, one that exists solely in the mind of Labour MP Jim Sheridan, where newspapers are only allowed by wise politicians to write nice things about kittens. Sheridan was cross. He scolded the Culture Secretary for setting up a system of self-regulation. Miller performed some impressive facial gymnastics, managing to keep her face frozen in that same cheery expression while still clenching her teeth. Here’s the exchange:

Sheridan: The other thing, can I say, Secretary of State, you were very articulate on the virtues of self-regulation, and can I put to you that the vast majority of people in this place, and, I would contest, the vast majority of the public, don’t believe that self-regulation works. Are you aware of any other profession, or discipline, that can collectively opt out of regulation on the basis that it “doesn’t suit us”?

Miller: Well, clearly you don’t agree with Lord Justice Leveson’s report, and that’s your prerogative, you’re entirely open to have those views, we do live in a democracy, it’s for you to make that decision. We took the approach that we do agree with the principles set out in Lord Justice Leveson’s report.

Sheridan: I do as well.

Miller: Well, then you wouldn’t be advocating anything other than self-regulation then, because that’s clearly set out within his report as one of the key principles. [Smiles icily]

Sheridan: Just moving on…

Speaking of Labour, at the end of a long and flowery account of the late-night talks where the deal was finally signed off (Conor Burns sighed ‘I almost feel I’ve just lived it with you’ when he’d finally finished), Oliver Letwin dropped in a claim that Hacked Off had held quite an impressive sway over the negotiations from the Labour party. He said:

‘I have to say, how can I put this delicately, throughout the negotiations… throughout them I had very strongly the sense that the Labour party was acting very much in concert with Hacked Off and that they were unwilling to move in certain directions without consulting Hacked Off.’

But what about whether the deal that was struck is actually going to work? The toughest question of the whole session came from Philip Davies, who managed to dumfound all three witnesses by asking whether they had an idea of what they might do if the industry didn’t back it. ‘You must have thought to yourself “what do we do if nobody signs up”?’ he asked. Apparently they hadn’t. Presumably that doesn’t matter so much if you’re skipping through the sunlit meadows of perfect press regulation that Miller and Letwin are currently occupying.

Tags: Maria miller, Oliver Letwin, Press regulation, UK politics