Beneath the skin of the Leveson law

 

There is an old trope about sausages and law. You don't want to see how they both are made. Here is why.

The deal was agreed in the early hours in Ed Miliband's office at the House of Commons. The Labour leader was there alongside his deputy Harriet Harman. The Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg was present as were four members of the Hacked Off campaign group whose leading light, Hugh Grant, describes as "a few dandruffy professors...a slightly insane chess champion ex-Lib Dem MP and a couple of threadbare lawyers".

Representing the Conservatives was Oliver Letwin, the minister for policy, a man who once left parliamentary papers in a bin in St James's Park. The relevant minister, the Culture Secretary Maria Miller, was not present. The prime minister was "being kept informed", Number 10 tell us, and took his last call from Mr Letwin after 3am. No one from the press was present. There were bleary eyes all round.

Together this band of late night policymakers agreed a piece of law to establish and underpin future royal charters, a medieval form of documentation first used in 1066, most commonly to turn towns into cities.

The royal charter created in the wake of Leveson will create a so-called recognition body to oversee a new press regulator. This royal charter will only be changed with a two thirds majority of MPs and peers. The group in Mr Miliband's office agreed that this new law should come in the form of an amendment to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, a piece of legislation that will set up a green investment bank and change competition laws, a bill that is currently ploughing its way through the House of Lords, a bill that has sweet nothing to do with press regulation.

Our nocturnal policymakers also agreed a second deal. This would ensure that newspapers who refuse to join the new regulatory regime will be liable - potentially - for exemplary damages if a claim is upheld against them.

This, however, will come in the form of a series of amendments to the Crime and Courts Bill, a piece of legislation that will set up a new national crime agency, reform tribunals and establish a new drug driving law. It too has nothing to do with press regulation. This bill just happens to be in the House of Commons right now so that bit will be considered first by MPs, not peers who will look at the royal charter first.

David Cameron, who, as we have established, was not in Mr Miliband's room in the middle of the night, wants however to have his say. So before any amendments go before MPs, the prime minister - with less than three hours sleep under his belt - will stand up in the House of Commons and ask the Speaker's permission (yes, that is right, the Speaker's permission) to hold a debate on the issue, using a dusty paragraph from the Standing Orders of the House of Commons known as SO24 to break into the usual flow of parliamentary business. MPs will debate the broad principles but not the detail, and - heaven forbid - they certainly won't vote on it.

All this, note, to determine nothing less important than the balance between ensuring redress for victims of press intrusion and the freedom of the press, a judgement of such sensitivity that it would stretch Solomon, let alone our band of sleepy policymakers and campaigners.

So there was no white paper. No pre-legislative scrutiny. Just rushed, late night law driven as much by politics as by principle. And nota bene, all this just to regulate the press, not necessarily every darkened recess of the news providing internet. The royal charter says it covers websites that provide news-related material, but there is some confusion as to what that really means. As a distinguished lobby colleague noted, it is like regulating the buggy whip just as the internal combustion engine is coming in.

Thus is law made. Perhaps we should inspect the sausage for horsemeat?

 
James Landale Article written by James Landale James Landale Deputy political editor

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  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 22.

    Wouldn't it be great to have a press that is free from mind-numbing celebrity tittle-tattle, and full of investigative journalism that holds politicians and big business to account ?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 21.

    12.Izates - "....I am a UK citizen, living in the UK, publishing news and comment via a US server; what is my legal position and that of my website/commentators?"


    As you are running a website it is your job to hire lawyers ot advise on the issues - in the same companies have to hire lawyers for legal advice about their activities.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 20.

    Too 'cobbled together' for political convenience but a real gift to the lawyers pension funds. One more 'curates egg'.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 19.

    What speaks louder than anything else if the following:


    The papers withe loudest howls of protest are those that one or both the following criteria:


    A/. They committed the most crimes under the old system

    and/or

    B/. They tell the most lies that they'll now have to apologise for each time they do it


    Those with least to hide are not howling in outrage.......

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 18.

    Excellent few paragraphs Mr. Lansdale. Surely this is proof that democracy is an extremely outdated political philosophy, if, for no other reason, that it can so easily be corrupted by those in the corridors of power.
    Once again our third-rate politicians have come up with a thoroughly un-tasty piece of fudge.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 17.

    Well, at least we know the answer to Ed's question. He could organise a Royal Charter in a brewery. With a little help from his friends.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 16.

    The devil's in the detail and there's no detail here. How will this regulatory how ill this 'regulation body' be appointed, who will scrutinise its work? what enforcement powers will it have (e.g. level of fines?) what will be its brief?
    The 'free press' has failed to regulate itself and something needs to be done. Apologies ate useless after the event. Can truly punitive fines be imposed?

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 15.

    Amendments tacked on to other unrelated unrelated bills, sliding through parliament as if it was of little importance. No peer review?
    This latest attempt to hold the press to account turned out to be a complete and utter farce, but with a very dark side - law making in private, no debate, no vote.............this 'in the dead of night' legislating has a very unpleasant taste to it.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 14.

    James Landale, wonderful piece of journalism.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 13.

    So, a regulation body - that will require a bunch of over-paid numpties backed by an army of paper shufflers....and a new press regulator, no doubt also needing an expensive office and the hangers-on required to give the position status!

    How about having the Press pay for this nonsense? Almost forgot, the press are not even obliged to sign up for this!

    Another issue fudged - surprise, surprise.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 12.

    Quite right, veop; I am a UK citizen, living in the UK, publishing news and comment via a US server; what is my legal position and that of my website/commentators?

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 11.

    been asked by a US website host what gives the UK right to decide what the word "publish" means? They aren't in the UK, have no staff in UK, simply host some UK-focussed blogs. The content is written onto US servers, not UK, it's not published in the UK under any sane definition of the word publish as the hosting servers are all in US. This is a "stupid piece of regulation" (paraphrasing them)

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 10.

    Any new legislation should be scrutinised by asking how it could be abused by a power-hungry autocrat. Am I the only one who feels deep unease about quasi legislation being passed by Royal Charter without a vote in Parliament, and then being far more difficult to reverse than normal legislation? Cameron has got the others to fudge this- we needed a properly debated law not a Royal Charter.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 9.

    No need for any new regulation. Everything that was illegal WAS illegal. Basically you know if all three parties, the Guardian, AND the BBC support something, it must be very very bad for this country.

    And why the rush to legislate? Why no review, why no pause to consider implications? This stinks. It's just politicians seeking to gag their critics.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 8.

    I would like to see a candid TV (not on 'neutral' Sky) interview with Lord Justice Leveson on this result. Given the amount of his time that he spent on a long and meticulous inquiry, what does he think. Does this cut any mustard at all with him or does he think that they have simply ignored his findings to please the Murdochs etc.?

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 7.

    I think they have forgotten that with any Freedom must come responsibility. The Press, both large and small, have not shown and are still not showing that responsibility.
    I would like to be able to say again "I believe what is reported in the News".
    Unfortunately I don't think this fudge does anything other than to pose the question, why was so much time and money wasted on the Leveson Enquiry?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 6.

    I still can't see anything about the possibility of the press being able to veto members of the Press Regulatory Body. Cameron promoted that - some would say that he wanted to influence the press to support the Tory Party! Clegg and Milliband were rightly against it, but what has happened!?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 5.

    Great news for the real journalists aka Private Eye. Way to fudge over the little man who stands for press freedoms.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 4.

    Re 3: If the company goes broke they lose the name of the paper, and so the brand. That they can't hide.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 3.

    Now if I was publishing a paper - would simply refuse to join the new arrangement and protect myself from exemplary damages with a limited company structure with wafer thin capitalisation. Bit like a bank. Won't take long for the media lawyers to twig that one. Politicians really are all from the shallow end of the oxbridge talent pool these days.

 

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