Conservative Diary

« This cautious Chancellor has no money and is constrained by the Lib Dems. What tax cuts could he still offer? | Main | Your five-point checklist for tomorrow’s Budget »

Will the press feel that it can ever rely on Cameron again?

Screen shot 2013-03-19 at 08.10.02

                                                    Graphic above from today's Daily Mail

By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter.

Towards the end of last week, David Cameron broke off talks with Nick Clegg and David Miliband over press regulation.  Over the weekend, he resumed them.  Yesterday, he joined the two other party leaders to propose a scheme to the Commons.  There are only two ways of intepreting his actions.  The first is that the Prime Minister always intended to cut a deal with Clegg and Miliband, that his main aim throughout the talks has been to avoid defeat in the Commons, and that his ending of them was a gambit which sought to squeeze as many concessions out of them as possible.  The second is that he braced himself to go down to defeat last week, exasperated by Clegg and Miliband's behaviour, but changed his mind over the weekend.

He had reasons to take either course.  Sticking to his guns and going down to defeat in the Commons could have won him the praise of the centre-right papers, and of the part of his party that has always been uneasy about statutory regulation.  However, there was a risk that any goodwill won from those papers would be short-lived, and that being beaten in the lobbies would have weakened his position further.  Restarting the talks and agreeing a deal instead has avoided that Commons defeat - a mere fourteen Conservative MPs rebelled - and enabled Mr Cameron to claim, truthfully enough, that the regulation he agreed with Clegg and Miliband was less restrictive than that they'd have proposed (and seen passed) if left to their own devices.

I set all this out to demonstrate that the Prime Minister was confronted by a classic Catch-22.  It's reasonable to have sympathy for his plight, but also to expect him, having made his choice, to carry it out competently.  And competence, surely, would have looked roughly like this.  Clegg and Miliband would have been asked back into Downing Street, where Cameron would have had full civil service back-up for his discussions with them.  If the Prime Minister was not available,  Harriet Harman would have visisted the Culture Department, where Maria Miller, who after all is responsible for press regulation, would have had similar assistance available.  Neither Hacked Off nor representatives of the papers would have been present.

Now consider what actually happened.  According to both today's Guardian and Daily Mail, Clegg went to Downing Street on Sunday to meet Cameron.  Miliband either didn't go or wasn't invited.  This is unobjectionable in itself.  After all, Cameron is the Prime Minister, Clegg is his deputy, and that both should hammer out a common position is part of the normal business of coalition.  Clegg then went to see Miliband in the Leader of the Opposition's suite of offices in Norman Shaw South.  It might well be argued that Miliband should have been asked to come to Downing Street or the Culture Department, but since Clegg and Miliband have been operating as a team over press regulation, it isn't surprising that the former visited the latter, rather than vice-versa.

Four senior members of Hacked Off - the former Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, Hugh Tomlinson QC, Brian Cathcart and Martin Moore - were in Miliband's office when Clegg arrived.  Again, this is par for the course: after all, Miliband has behaved as though he were a wholly owned subsidiary of Hacked Off during the past few weeks.  But what happened next should raise a few eyebrows.  The Hacked Off representatives present demanded that Oliver Letwin, the chief fixer during negotiations, be summoned to continue negotiations.  Clegg eventually rang Letwin.  Letwin arrived shortly before midnight with "further officials", according to the Guardian.  (The Deputy Prime Minister had presumably brought others with him.)

There is disagreement about what happened next.  Downing Street says that Letwin was present merely to iron out details over exemplary damages.  Labour says that the discussions "were substantive and Letwin was given a side room in Miliband's office, a waiting room to consult No 10 and key figures in the industry.  Letwin insisted that Hacked Off left the room for the final deal."  I don't know how many of these "key figures" Letwin was able to find, but since "Cameron's last text exchange with Letwin was a little after 3.20 am", it may well be that some of them were uncontactable.  Certainly, I'm told that the first that two national newspaper editors knew of the deal was when they heard Harriet Harman proclaiming victory on Today.

This may be wrong.  And it can legitimately be claimed that time was short, that the niceties of who visited whom really don't matter, that Letwin should be congratulated on his stamina and ingenuity - and that, after all, a deal was agreed.  But there's another way of viewing what happened, for two big reasons.  First, where the deal was done really does matter.  To cede to a meeting in Miliband's office the power to conclude an agreement of this importance is to cede authority - to allow it, literally, to flow from the Prime Minister to the Leader of the Opposition.  Second, and more importantly, Hacked Off were present and the newspaper editors weren't.  It is scarcely surprising if the latter see this as deeply unfair.

Imagine how you'd feel today were you the editor of a centre-right Fleet Street title.  A campaign that wants to neuter your paper, and turn today's mixed newspaper market into a BBC Fleet Street, was directly involved in the talks that framed the laws that now govern you.  You not only weren't in the room, but didn't even know (in some cases) that these talks in Miliband's office were taking place.  One bill, the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, sets out the mechanism by which the press is to be regulated.  Another, the Crime and Courts Bill, sets out how you will be punished if you don't co-operate with it.  This is not "a dab" of statutory regulation.  It is an ugly splash on a previously blank canvas, which Parliament can now add to at will.

And as Peter Lilley pointed out in the Commons yesterday, the new regulator will have "open-ended powers", including those to prevent and require material to be published.  "We are giving a body the right to decide what is fact and what is true," Mr Lilley said, adding that there seems to be "no limits to the powers that the body can grant itself or the extent to which it can go".  (Nor is it clear where the limits of the new system lie where the internet is concerned.)  I think that were you such an editor - or the editor of any paper, come to think of it, including the thousand or so regional ones represented by the Newspaper Society - you would feel angry.  No wonder Index on Censorship described yesterday as "a sad day for press freedom".

Every Fleet Street editor will be aware of the claims of Downing Street incoherence and incompetence with which Cameron's own Ministers ceaselessly regale their lobby staff (and with which the editors of this site are only too familiar).  Now they have experienced it at first hand.  The millionaire-funded interest group which wants to censor your paper was in on the talks which shaped the laws that govern your industry - but you, for whatever reason, were not.  "The Quad" (the Sun, Mail, Telegraph and Express titles) have long had little time for the Prime Minister.  They will now have even less.  This is not exactly a cheering prospect for Number Ten as it prepares for the budget this week and local elections this spring.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.