WMN opinion: Political point-scoring that threatens press freedom
Politics is a grubby business. And never more so than when one party sees another party – and its leader – on the ropes. Sometimes the temptation to put the boot in and score some points overrides what should be a sober consideration of what is the right thing to do. In our view that’s what happened over the weekend as Labour and the Lib Dems saw the chance to wring some concessions out of David Cameron over imposing legal controls on the press and went in for the kill for party political gain.
An all-party agreement had been all but sealed last week until, apparently pushed just a little too far, Mr Cameron – always, and to his credit, vehemently opposed to any statutory controls over newspapers – announced he was going to force a vote. He should have stuck to his guns but further talks over the weekend saw a compromise thrashed out which, worryingly, does now include “statutory underpinning”. In other words, politicians will in future have ultimate control over the press, a situation that fundamentally undermines the freedom of newspapers to call those politicians to account. Try as he might to play down the “statutory” element of the royal charter that will, in future, govern the regulation of the press, Mr Cameron is not fooling anyone. As a senior Labour figure said yesterday: “This is not a little bit of statute, this is not a dab of statute, this is a statute pure and simple.” With a clear eye on the political damage this does to Mr Cameron, the PM’s partner in coalition, Nick Clegg, got in on the act too. “In effect what we have done is adopt the so-called ‘royal charter plus’...and it is underpinned by legislation.”
Of course it is no secret that, as soon as Lord Leveson published his report – which included the ‘L’ word – both Labour and the Lib Dems called for its adoption in full. So in that sense it is no surprise that both have taken the opportunity to push for legislation, given the opportunity. It is a shame, however, that in sensing both the chance to ride a wave of popular revulsion at the antics of the grubbier end of Fleet Street – antics that have, don’t forget, been largely dealt with by the proprietor of the newspaper in question – and make some political capital, both Labour and the Lib Dems felt unable to resist. A shame too that Mr Cameron didn’t stick to his guns. He could have won the vote.
What we will now have, as a result of this compromise, is press regulation with a very nasty sting in the tail. It is a sting that will allow politicians the opportunity, maybe not right now, but at sometime in the future, to upgrade the level of control they exert over newspapers. It would require a ‘super majority’ – two-thirds of both the Houses of Commons and Lords – but it would be possible. That blows a hole in 300 years of press freedom. It may be a small hole. But small holes can get bigger. If Mr Clegg and Mr Miliband think that’s a fair price to pay for making David Cameron lose face, heaven help us.
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