Battle begins over future of the press

THE BATTLE lines for a parliamentary row over press freedom were drawn yesterday, after David Cameron rejected the central recommendation of the Leveson inquiry and said he had “serious concerns” about introducing legislation to support press regulation.

The combative stance was welcomed by the newspaper industry but means Cameron will now be pitted in a vicious battle against both the Labour party and his Lib Dem coalition colleagues, both of whom signalled their support for Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals of statutory backing for a new, independent press regulator.

“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,” Cameron told the Commons.

“I’m not convinced at this stage that statute is required,” he added, warning that legislation could be used by politicians to impose rules and obligations on the press.

The inquiry was ordered last summer following revelations about phone hacking at the News of the World. The judge’s near-2,000 page report was released yesterday afternoon with a recommendation for a new, independent regulatory body that can resolve complaints about the behaviour of the press at its core. But the judge also said that it is “essential” for legislation to underpin the new organisation. It is this demand for the first statutory regulation of the press since 1695 that has angered many Conservatives and been met by overwhelming opposition from the industry.

In a break with convention which dealt a further blow to the coalition, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg made a separate statement to the Commons where he set out his differences to Cameron – as well as his support for legislation.

“A free press does not mean a press that is free to bully innocent people or free to abuse grieving families,” Clegg said. “Changing the law is the only way to guarantee a system of self-regulation.”

Labour leader Ed Miliband said there can be “no more last chance saloons” for the press. But Mayor of London Boris Johnson said the Prime Minister was “absolutely right” to oppose statutory rules.

Leveson wants the new watchdog to be overseen by the broadcast regulator Ofcom and have the power to fine newspapers up to one per cent of their turnover or £1m. He wants to ban off-the-record briefings from the police and politicians to the media. A Downing Street source told City A.M. the government was drawing up draft legislation based on Leveson with the explicit aim of proving that it “will not work”.