As David Cameron put it: "Politics is about delivering change." His decision to break off talks on press regulation with the other party leaders and go for a vote on a Royal Charter is a gamble.
Cross-party agreement on an issue so fundamental to our democracy is desirable and earlier this week looked possible. Though a Royal Charter might require a one-clause amendment (to ensure future ministers could not pervert it), it appears to avoid the elephant trap of state regulation, while achieving the objectives laid down by Lord Leveson last November. In retrospect, it is a pity all three party leaders nailed their colours to the mast on the issue of statutory underpinning when the ink on the Leveson Report was barely dry. It made compromise more difficult, especially when Labour and the Liberal Democrats believe they are supported by both public opinion and a majority in the Commons.
Yesterday, the Hacked Off group and others pressing for statutory change accused the Prime Minister of capitulating to the press barons. That is unfair. Mr Cameron's misgivings about the dangers of legislating for press regulation are shared by bodies such as Liberty and the Index on Censorship, which perceive the thin end of a dangerous wedge, especially under a future Government with authoritarian tendencies or something to hide. That view is also supported by a number of opposition politicians, including former Home Secretary David Blunkett.
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Any new system of press regulation has to be both deliverable and workable and the press must be prepared to work with the grain of it. A Royal Charter appears to tick all those boxes. Also, more than 100 days have elapsed since Lord Leveson reported and this new structure could be in place by July. Any statutory alternative could take years.
The Leveson Inquiry was the upshot of the phone-hacking scandal, an illegal activity that should have been investigated by the police. However, it took evidence on a wide range of subjects under the general heading of press ethics. As Lord Leveson made clear in his report, the great majority of the press operate within the law. For newspapers like The Herald that seek to hold those in authority to account and expose wrongdoing without recourse to hacking phones or bribing police officers, the risk is that heavy-handed proscription will inhibit legitimate journalistic investigation. The financially challenged regional press is concerned that tough talk of fines of up to £1 million and punitive damages could offer a field day for ambulance-chasing lawyers. Complainants who would once have settled for a correction, may see pounds signs. This issue must be addressed.
The new watchdog that will replace the Press Complaints Commission will go ahead. The issue is how to ensure this body is both independent and accountable in the "recognition panel" created to oversee it. If the Prime Minister loses the vote on Monday the ball bounces into the court of Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg. If they are challenged with coming up with a form of words to underpin statutory regulation, they may realise how complex and controversial such legislation would be. And where there are laws, there are lawyers to challenge them. It is not in anybody's interests, including any future Dowler or McCann family, that this issue is allowed to drag on. Messrs Clegg and Miliband should be careful what they wish for.