The first of many cross-party discussions on the response to the Leveson Inquiry lasted 30 minutes last night. The ‘frank’ meeting resulted in David Cameron agreeing to draft bill to see if the proposals in Lord Justice Leveson’s report were workable. The idea is that the legislation will prove that the statutory underpinning of the new independent press regulator is unworkable, while Number 10 sources are briefing that the Prime Minister has ‘not shifted one inch’ on his position on the report.
But agreeing to draft legislation, if only to prove those deep misgivings that Cameron retains, is a canny way of approaching the divide in Parliament over the response to the report. Rather than appearing to dismiss the recommendations out of hand, the Prime Minister can then say that the Government really did try to see if statutory regulation would work. It could underline the concern he expressed in the Commons yesterday that the system that Leveson said was not statutory regulation would in fact end up as statutory regulation. The draft legislation could be ready in the next two weeks.
But while ministers can drive their government lawyers as fast as they possibly can to draft the legislation, one thing they do rely on without having any power over is the response of the newspaper industry to Leveson. There is a risk that in celebrating the apparent demise of the threat of statutory regulation, the press gives the impression that it does not want to change. That is untrue: as Fraser says in his blog this morning, the abuses that triggered the Leveson Inquiry have brought shame on the newspaper industry. Maria Miller was stern about the need for enthusiasm among editors for the new independent regulator when she appeared on Sky News this morning, saying:
‘Their solution to the questions that have been posed by Lord Leveson, what Lord Leveson has made clear is that the current Hunt/Black model has some significant flaw and I think the press need to be under no illusions if that isn’t forthcoming then we would have to take further action.’
Cameron said yesterday that he wanted to give the newspaper industry some time to plan for its new regulator. But it will be very important for him that a tough new independent regime that bears no resemblance to the weak Press Complaints Commission is set up with expedience if he is to deflect claims that he is simply bowing to bullying from the press. The important thing, he argued yesterday, is that the newspaper industry changes for good. He needs the press to show that this can happen without statutory underpinning.