A judge handed down his verdict on British press standards Thursday by calling for a new regulator to eliminate what he described as a “sub-culture” of unethical behaviour, accusing sections of the industry of wreaking havoc with innocent lives.
But the judge’s central recommendation – that a new regulator should be backed by law – has triggered new and deep divisions between the two parties that make up the government's often fragile coalition.
“It was sparked by public revulsion about a single act: the hacking of a mobile phone of a murdered teenager,” Lord Justice Leveson said of his inquiry, which the government established following allegations that the now defunct tabloid, the News of the World, employed a private detective to access messages left on the cellphone of schoolgirl Milly Dowler following her disappearance in 2002.
During eight months of testimony at the inquiry, Leveson heard from witnesses including Milly's parents, and also cast an eye over issues ranging from press ownership to relations between the media, police, and politicians. But his recommendation to create a legislatively defined media regulator with enforcement powers – as opposed to the British press's current voluntary self-regulatory body, the Press Complaints Commission – has been met with markedly different responses from the heads of the government's two coalition partners, Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservative Party and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats.
In a statement to Parliament, Mr. Cameron opposed Leveson’s recommendation, telling fellow MPs: "For the first time we would have crossed the Rubicon, writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land.”
“We should, I believe, be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press. In this House – which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries – we should think very, very carefully before crossing this line.”
Change of tune
But less than two hours after Cameron said he was "wary" of Parliament making new laws on the issue, Mr. Clegg stood up to declare that legislation was the "only way" to ensure the independence of the regulator.
The body language was striking as he spoke. Sitting beside him, the prime minister remained stiff-jawed while across the floor of the House of Commons, Clegg’s nominal opponent, Labour leader Ed Miliband, nodded his head vigorously in agreement with the Liberal Democrat leader’s view that Britain’s first press law since 1695.
"On the basic model of a new, self-regulatory body established with a change to the law, in principle I believe this can be done in a proportionate and workable way," added Clegg.
Talks between the leaders of Britain’s main parties will now begin, although reaching cross-party consensus is going to be formidably difficult. Potentially, a coalition of Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and others – including dozens of rebel Tory MPs – could attempt to steer a new press law into being next year, although whether such an alliance could hold is in doubt.
Professor Steven Fielding, director of the Centre for British Politics and professor of political history in the School of Politics at the University of Nottingham, said that Cameron and Clegg had clearly been trying to reconcile their differences.
“They have tried not to turn it into a big drama for the coalition, but I don’t know if they are going to be ale to manage that. There are people on either side, and particularly people on Cameron’s backbenches, who want to turn it into a crisis because they don’t want to be in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.”
The issue has illuminated ideological differences between the governing parties. Although Clegg himself is on the more libertarian wing of his party, many Liberal Democrat MPs and a sizeable bulk of its members are social democrats at ease with government intervention.
The party, and others, may also be reflecting a significant degree of public taste for sections of the press to have their “feet held to the flames,” according to Richard Sambrook, professor of journalism and director of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff University.
He adds that one factor may be that many of the more high-profile allegations of phone-hacking centered on the News of the World, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. “The Lib Dems and Vincent Cable, the government’s business secretary and deputy leader of the party, have long been very sceptical of Murdoch and that may be important.”
The Conservative Party meanwhile is more likely to be the home to laissez-faire thinkers guided by the principle that less government is better. Critics of the Tories have also pointed to the closeness of successive leaders of the party to press barons – particularly Murdoch – although his newspapers backed the Labour Party under Tony Blair in the 1990s.
Even so, adds Professor Fielding, the issue is a potentially very difficult one for Cameron, given the extent of public horror at some of the revealations about the behavior of British tabloids.
“It will be very interesting to see how the polls reflect on this, because I suspect that by standing against Leveson – and perhaps with good reasons like they ones he has set out – that David Cameron will be seen as standing against the parents of Milly Dowler and standing with Rupert Murdoch."