Beneath the skin of the Leveson law
- 18 March 2013
- From the section UK Politics
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?