I do believe that David Cameron has just pledged to protect press freedom – and, in effect, reject the most illiberal proposals of today’s Leveson Report. He has asked the media to reform itself, and radically. He accepts the principles of the report and asks the media to ‘implement them, and implement them radically’. But he asks. He doesn’t want to tell. And he draws a very important distinction between the two: parliament hasn’t told the press what to do since 1695 and Cameron doesn’t want to start now.
We argue in our leader in this week’s Spectator that Cameron is a man of principle, a friend of freedom and a pragmatist who will recognize that press regulation would not address the abuses of press freedom. He said today: ‘issue of principle, practicality and necessity. For the first time, we would have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land’.
The Commons, he rightly said, has been ‘a bulwark of democracy for centuries’ and should ‘think very carefully about crossing this line’. Any legislation that’s simple at first, he then said, would become more complex later on. And Leveson’s proposed ‘validation’ of independent press, Cameron said, would create a mechanism for political control that could be ratcheted up later.
This is a defining moment for the Prime Minister, invoking ancient liberties to give a calm, eloquent and robust defence of freedom of speech. It shows that he is, at heart, a classic English Tory who dislikes changing hundreds of years of precedent due to momentary panics. I hope those 42 pro-regulation Tory MPs were in the chamber listening to him: this is Cameron at his boldest and best.
UPDATE: This is what Cameron said in the Commons in regards to Leveson’s statutory recommendations:
‘[Leveson] goes on to propose legislation that would help deliver those incentives and also – crucially – provide: “an independent process to recognise the new self-regulatory body”. This would, he says, “reassure the public that the basic requirements of independence and effectiveness were met and would continue to be met”.
‘Now I have some serious concerns and misgivings on this recommendation. They break down into issues of principle, practicality and necessity. The issue of principle is that for the first time we would have crossed the rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land.
‘We should I believe be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press. In this House – which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries – we should think very, very carefully before crossing this line.
‘On the grounds of practicality, no matter how simple the intention of the new law, the legislation required to underpin the regulatory body would I believe become more complicated.
‘Paragraphs 71 and 72 in the Executive Summary begin to set out what would be needed in the legislation if refers to, for instance, validating the standards code and recognising the powers of the new body, for example.
‘And if you turn to page 1772 in Volume IV of the full report, it says this about the new law: it “must identify those legitimate requirements and provide a mechanism to recognise and certify that a new body meets them”.
‘The danger is that this would create a vehicle for politicians whether today or some time in the future to impose regulation and obligations on the press, something that Lord Justice Leveson himself wishes to avoid.
‘Third, on the grounds of necessity – I am not convinced at this stage that statute is necessary to achieve Lord Justice Leveson’s objectives. I believe there may be alternative options for putting in place incentives, providing reassurance to the public and ensuring the Leveson principles of regulation are put in place and these options must be explored.’