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David Cameron: the press may regret its defiance over regulation

26 December 2013

7:41 AM

26 December 2013

7:41 AM

In my interview with David Cameron in the current Christmas edition of The Spectator, there wasn’t enough space for everything – including his thoughts on press regulation. We did discuss it, in the back of his car, and he warned that the press is playing a dangerous game in its defiance — i.e., refusing to sign up to the Politicians’ Charter. This was an elegant and voluntary compromise, he said, and the alternative may be compulsory statutory regulation enforced by an illiberal Labour government.

After the publication of the Leveson Report in November last year, Cameron spoke very eloquently about the danger of statutory regulation – rejecting regulation which ‘has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press’. So he asked Oliver Letwin to come up with a compromise — which was complicated. The Royal Charter is a medieval device which deploys the power of the state without the supervision parliament. Such charters are not neutral, but decided by a privy council composed of politicians. The foxes voted to regulate the chicken coop.

The press refused to sign (the Spectator’s ‘No’ came on a cover) and instead moved to send up a new, independent regulator which would do almost everything Lord Leveson wanted but just not at the behest of politicians. That’s how I see it, anyway. The PM sees it differently. Here he is:

‘I believe there’s a great opportunity here to put this difficult and painful issue to bed. If the press set up their regulator I hope, in time, they will make that regulator compliant with – will be able to then seek recognition under – the charter recognition body. If that then happens, we’ll have in place a system that I think will settle this issue because we would have achieved what Leveson wanted which is independent self-regulation by the press, but not marking its own homework, having itself checked, and only having the body checked as it were by the charter.’

Note the wee slip: the idea of a ‘compliant’ press was quickly substituted for a press seeking ‘recognition’. He was right the first time: he wants the press to independently comply with the Politicians Charter. And if it doesn’t, then the issue is dangerously unresolved.

His answer sounded a bit different to what culture secretary, Maria Miller, had to tell Andrew Marr last month. He asked her if ‘nothing else needs to happen” if the new press regulatory works. ‘Yes — ultimately yes,’ she replied:

‘There are opportunities for the press to be able to be recognised and I would encourage them to look at that because it does mean that they can get the sort of incentives around costs and also exemplary damages.’

I put to Cameron  that what he’s saying sounds a bit different to what she told Marr. His response:

‘What she’s saying is that it’s now down to the press,. We’ve done our bit, we have put in place a royal charter. We’ve given you, the press, an opportunity to put this issue to bed I would think for 50 to 100 years if you want to. Now, if you choose to set up your self-regulator but say ‘we’re not going to seek recognition’, that is your choice.  Personally I think that is a mistake because you’re missing the opportunity to settle this and you’re risking that some future, less liberal, less enlightened government at the time of the next press crisis will hitch you with some hideous statutory regulation which I prevented.’

A hundred years? On current circulation trends the Guardian, FT and Independent will have disappeared from the newsstand by the end of the decade. Even since our interview another title (the Liverpool Post) folded. But Cameron seems to believes his proposal — the politicians’ charter — is a means of preserving freedom forever. Here’s how the rest of the interview went:

‘DC: I have given you – this government has given you – the opportunity to put this to bed through this way.  Now, if you choose to set up your body but not seek recognition, that is your decision. We’ve done our bit to put this in place. I think you’re at risk in the future, but it’s your choice.  I find it hard to understand what is it in the process of seeking recognition that sends you into such a problematic state, but that’s for you to decide.

FN:  It’s not just me. It would be illegal in America, for example. Illegal in Sweden. Illegal in a lot of countries where press freedom is guaranteed by some kind of constitution. Ask these countries why they think it’s so important! But the principle is that that politicians ought not to set the parameters under which the press operates

DC: But we wouldn’t, that’s the beauty of the royal charter. I don’t want to get into a long argument, but my view is that the royal charter was a very neat idea for having something to check off the press body – but in a way the politicians’ fingertips were kept well away from it. The whole irony of the two-thirds lock was that was put in place to help show that politicians weren’t going to change this royal charter by political fiat, but it’s obviously caused concern, but it ought to be reassuring that this can’t happen, but otherwise we don’t have the two-thirds lock because the politicians could change the royal charter, that’s the problem.

FN: You guys [the main three political parties] got together one night and cooked it up. You did it before a subsequent government could do it again, for as long as politicians are in the formula, the press are not properly free.

DC: And if ever that happens, the press can say: ‘we’re no longer seeking recognition’. It is a voluntary system. And that’s why I think you are a brave fighter for press freedom and all the rest of it.

FN: I thought you were, too.

DC: I am, I’ve delivered. I really believe I’ve delivered a system that I think does not cross the Rubicon because we have not legislated – but actually is within the spirit of Leveson which is itself regulation but doesn’t mark its own homework. I think I’ve done my bit. But it’s up to you guys now – and, as I say, I think you might be at risk if you don’t do it. Not from me, but from a less liberal, enlightened government in the future.  Remember, everyone else wanted to legislate.’

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