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David Cameron: the press may regret its defiance over regulation

26 December 2013

In my interview with David Cameron in the current Christmas edition of The Spectator, there wasn’t enough space for everything – including his thoughts on press regulation. We did discuss it, in the back of his car, and he warned that the press is playing a dangerous game in its defiance — i.e., refusing to sign up to the Politicians’ Charter. This was an elegant and voluntary compromise, he said, and the alternative may be compulsory statutory regulation enforced by an illiberal Labour government.

After the publication of the Leveson Report in November last year, Cameron spoke very eloquently about the danger of statutory regulation – rejecting regulation which ‘has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press’. So he asked Oliver Letwin to come up with a compromise — which was complicated. The Royal Charter is a medieval device which deploys the power of the state without the supervision parliament. Such charters are not neutral, but decided by a privy council composed of politicians. The foxes voted to regulate the chicken coop.

The press refused to sign (the Spectator’s ‘No’ came on a cover) and instead moved to send up a new, independent regulator which would do almost everything Lord Leveson wanted but just not at the behest of politicians. That’s how I see it, anyway. The PM sees it differently. Here he is:

‘I believe there’s a great opportunity here to put this difficult and painful issue to bed. If the press set up their regulator I hope, in time, they will make that regulator compliant with – will be able to then seek recognition under – the charter recognition body. If that then happens, we’ll have in place a system that I think will settle this issue because we would have achieved what Leveson wanted which is independent self-regulation by the press, but not marking its own homework, having itself checked, and only having the body checked as it were by the charter.’

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Note the wee slip: the idea of a ‘compliant’ press was quickly substituted for a press seeking ‘recognition’. He was right the first time: he wants the press to independently comply with the Politicians Charter. And if it doesn’t, then the issue is dangerously unresolved.

His answer sounded a bit different to what culture secretary, Maria Miller, had to tell Andrew Marr last month. He asked her if ‘nothing else needs to happen” if the new press regulatory works. ‘Yes — ultimately yes,’ she replied:

‘There are opportunities for the press to be able to be recognised and I would encourage them to look at that because it does mean that they can get the sort of incentives around costs and also exemplary damages.’

I put to Cameron  that what he’s saying sounds a bit different to what she told Marr. His response:

‘What she’s saying is that it’s now down to the press,. We’ve done our bit, we have put in place a royal charter. We’ve given you, the press, an opportunity to put this issue to bed I would think for 50 to 100 years if you want to. Now, if you choose to set up your self-regulator but say ‘we’re not going to seek recognition’, that is your choice.  Personally I think that is a mistake because you’re missing the opportunity to settle this and you’re risking that some future, less liberal, less enlightened government at the time of the next press crisis will hitch you with some hideous statutory regulation which I prevented.’

A hundred years? On current circulation trends the Guardian, FT and Independent will have disappeared from the newsstand by the end of the decade. Even since our interview another title (the Liverpool Post) folded. But Cameron seems to believes his proposal — the politicians’ charter — is a means of preserving freedom forever. Here’s how the rest of the interview went:

‘DC: I have given you – this government has given you – the opportunity to put this to bed through this way.  Now, if you choose to set up your body but not seek recognition, that is your decision. We’ve done our bit to put this in place. I think you’re at risk in the future, but it’s your choice.  I find it hard to understand what is it in the process of seeking recognition that sends you into such a problematic state, but that’s for you to decide.

FN:  It’s not just me. It would be illegal in America, for example. Illegal in Sweden. Illegal in a lot of countries where press freedom is guaranteed by some kind of constitution. Ask these countries why they think it’s so important! But the principle is that that politicians ought not to set the parameters under which the press operates

DC: But we wouldn’t, that’s the beauty of the royal charter. I don’t want to get into a long argument, but my view is that the royal charter was a very neat idea for having something to check off the press body – but in a way the politicians’ fingertips were kept well away from it. The whole irony of the two-thirds lock was that was put in place to help show that politicians weren’t going to change this royal charter by political fiat, but it’s obviously caused concern, but it ought to be reassuring that this can’t happen, but otherwise we don’t have the two-thirds lock because the politicians could change the royal charter, that’s the problem.

FN: You guys [the main three political parties] got together one night and cooked it up. You did it before a subsequent government could do it again, for as long as politicians are in the formula, the press are not properly free.

DC: And if ever that happens, the press can say: ‘we’re no longer seeking recognition’. It is a voluntary system. And that’s why I think you are a brave fighter for press freedom and all the rest of it.

FN: I thought you were, too.

DC: I am, I’ve delivered. I really believe I’ve delivered a system that I think does not cross the Rubicon because we have not legislated – but actually is within the spirit of Leveson which is itself regulation but doesn’t mark its own homework. I think I’ve done my bit. But it’s up to you guys now – and, as I say, I think you might be at risk if you don’t do it. Not from me, but from a less liberal, enlightened government in the future.  Remember, everyone else wanted to legislate.’

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Show comments
  • rharwell

    Cameron is no friend to a free press or free speech. In fact, the entire existing fascist wing of the UK govt. wants to end both. The Guardian has all but been determined to be an enemy of the state and a terrorist organization. Greenwald, well, we all know what those in power think of him and his associates/allies. The US is silent on what is happening in the UK AND what is occurring here in the US is no different and even worse. Truth-tellers are going to jail, losing their jobs (security clearances and being black listed) at record levels as the fear of retaliation (speaking out) silence everyone else. What we are being witnesses to is a very real 1984.

  • James Allen

    Tell Cameron he can go f*ck himself.

    But why no mention of the former Lord Chief Justice’s comments re. ECHR? How many more senior judges need to speak out before anyone in Parliament listens?

  • The Hobo Prep

    To the Great People of Occupied England: Stop gaoling people for using Twitter! That’s the real issue here. It’s so 18th Century! Let the persons affected get their attorneys onto it, keep the state out of exercise of free speech!

    Am I actually allowed to write that on a site viewed by people in England?

  • Tokopol

    This obsession with making the press as unhindered as possible is worse than thinking the press should be state-run.

  • D Roberts

    Cameron – a repulsive little man – almost as bad as IDS

  • cambridgeelephant

    ‘Would you rather live in a country with a press but no government – or a government but no press ?’

    Asked thus, Thomas Jefferson, a better man than most of us – and certainly an improvement on David Cameron, opted for the former every time.

    ‘New foes arise, to bind our souls with secular chains. Help us save free conscience from the paw of hireling wolves whose Gospel is their maw’ sailed Milton.

    So piss off Cameron !

  • He’s Spartacus

    Newspeak and doublethink, the career politician in a nutshell.

  • gillibrand

    You will do this if you know what is good for you- the opening gambit of totalitarians through the ages.

  • The Laughing Cavalier

    Headlines today, 27 December

    “Cameron threatens press … PM warns of ‘crackdown’ if newspapers refuse to sign up.” Daily Mail

    “Press regulation: David Cameron warns newspapers to sign up … ” The Independent.

    “Cameron warns UK press: sign up to royal charter or else … ” The Guardian

  • Lee

    so the government is regulating the entire press because they are scared of rupert murdock ??

  • the viceroy’s gin

    Ahhhh yes, so the Speccie is now warming up to support the Cameroonian censorship regime, is that it, laddie ?

    That must be the reason you censored those posts last night, then.

  • Samuel Johnson

    Cameron will do whatever it takes to make his life easier and, he thinks, prolong his term in office. This means he automatically caves into the most powerful or vocal lobby, whether Stonewall or Hacked Off. Intellectual or moral principle – ‘getting into a long argument’ or a ‘problematic state’ (a ‘problematic state’ wonderfully meaning actually being concerned about something and willing to stand up to the prevailing tide) – is

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    ” And if ever that happens, ( ie some event where the press doesn’t feel properly free) the press can say: ‘we’re no longer seeking recognition’. It is a voluntary system.”

    So perhaps in such scenario we might hear the press telling us on occasion that it’s working in “unchartered” territory..which would add to it’s shock value I suppose..but this should not affect the rights of ordinary members of the general taxpaying UK public.

  • Swanky

    Further thought: Cameron claims a kind of prescience or wise foreseeing of a less desirable situation for press freedom in Britain. But I think his position actually shows evidence of the opposite — that he imagines that the political dispensation existing in Britain today is pretty much how it’s going to be, ever after, with mere twitches to right or left from a standard, safe center. In short, he lacks the imagination and historical-political knowledge to grasp the fact that freedom is only ever one generation from being lost or sacrificed. His position assumes that we’re all going to be reasonable chaps about freedom of speech from here on out. I think that assumption is not justified, and that to the contrary, freedom always requires vigour for its defence, not complacency.

  • Swanky

    Well, hello! Some ‘less liberal, less enlightened government’ might well overturn any present agreement, anyway. What’s more, if the press signs on to it now, that less liberal government will have a precedent. It will have a springboard for its further erosion of free speech.

    Why is it than in America we not only don’t feel the need for Cameron’s press regulation but we also have a Bill of Rights, item number one of which guarantees freedom of (political) speech. And freedom of the press is political speech:

    Amendment I.

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

    • Samuel Johnson

      Right. Underlying his seeming amelioration and moderation is a chilling note of authority – ‘I’ve delivered a system’, ‘we’ve given you an opportunity’, ‘you’re at risk but it’s your choice’, ‘I find it hard to understand’, (patronisingly) ‘you’re a very brave fighter and all the rest of it’. It’s unbelievable that a politician should speak to an editor in this way in a free country. The tone is that of a headmaster pretending to give a recalcitrant pupil a choice in his punishment – always the worst kind of teacher. Translation: you are making my life difficult and if you keep it up we’re going to crush you.

      • Swanky

        Well put, S. J. Very well put, and thanks for saying it. Someone had to. While we still can. %^)

      • IRISHBOY

        Odd too that an editor didn’t ask the Prime Minister whether he couldn’t see a clear conflict of interest in appointing Sir David Bell to the Leveson Enquiry. Bell, a leading Trustee apparently of the Media Standards Trust (and Common Purpose) which spawned Hacked Off, was left in a position of being simultaneously poacher and gamekeeper – that Leveson himself saw no such conflict of interest makes one wonder if he pondered the concept of judicial independence for long enough.
        An editor might then have thought it right and proper to ask a Prime Minister who espouses transparency what his own links are with Common Purpose are, and question his own connections with Bell.
        For years I thought Voltaire’s famous saying about the defence of free speech was rather overstated, but the wise old boy saw that anything less was at best the thin edge of tyranny’s wedge, and that so-called offensive speech should be countered by argument not proscription. Surely by now it’s obvious that no amount of legislation can make bad men good, nor do anything other than further diminish our already disgracefully dhimminished freedoms.

  • Radford_NG

    There is a straight-out answer to the “ROYAL” charter.

    “Wilkes and Liberty!”

    Remember the notorious 45th. issue of the North Britain which the KIng regarded as abusing his Royal authority.

  • Rockin Ron

    Far too often journalists have abused their freedoms to ‘monster’ innocent individuals and companies in tawdry attempts to boost circulation. Having been warned many times about their appalling standards, they cannot now stick their head in the sand and pretend it will be business as usual.

    The Last Chance Saloon has closed so no use trying to gain entry. Much better to try to make the best of the compromise. A Royal Charter could be the least worst option. Saying No is ignoring reality.

    • Swanky

      I’m sure there are sufficient laws already on the books. There usually are. But people want fatter levers of power, especially if they are a) in government or b) of the Left. We’re really in for it when it’s a) and b) together.

    • Andy

      Swanky is quite right: there are quite enough Laws already, libel for one. If you don’t have a free press you don’t have freedom. The Political class, and morons on the left, want nothing more than to control the press, make it a poodle to do their bidding. The Left already controls far too much of the news provision in this country (via the BBC) and now it wants to control what remains of the print media. It wont do.

  • black11hawk

    How on earth the Lib Dems think they can call themselves ‘liberal’ whilst introducing ‘statutory underpinning’ of press regulation is ridiculous. The Liberal Party died long ago the Social Democrats reign.

  • The Laughing Cavalier

    Cameron’s line sounds very much like a threat. What happened to the Opposition Leader who decried NuLabour’s authoritarianism? He obtained office and found out how useful it is to have the repressive laws that Blair (especially) and Brown introduced.

    • Colonel Mustard


    • The Laughing Cavalier

      How interesting it is to see that four people have voted this comment down. What part of it is factually incorrect?

      • Alexsandr

        4 voted me down. I bet there is a organised down voting troll mob. They don’t have the nous to argue properly

    • Andy


  • Alexsandr

    who cares
    in the 70’s i saw loads of people on the ‘bus all going to work with a paper. Now hardly anyone has a paper, and people entertain themselves, not reading but playing with electronics. Maybe reading online stuff, but probably zapping aliens. And most people commute by car now so no opportunity to read papers while commuting.
    The printed paper is likely to go before very long. So I find all this navel gazing about regulation rather arcane.

    • Alexsandr

      dont just vote me down, say why I am wrong.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        Because censorship of newspapers today is the first step to censorship of the internet tomorrow. That’s what the EUSSR wants, certainly.

        • Alexsandr

          fair point. But the internet has proven to be far harder to control than the printed stuff. Even if there are controls in the UK, people can publish stuff abroad outside UK jurisdiction -like guidos site. And national controls are easily bypassed with various means.

          • the viceroy’s gin

            Also a fair point. But somebody somewhere has to fight for freedom and liberty. It can’t just be left for others. The rest of us have to take a hand in this as well. We can’t just sit and hope that somebody else looks out for our interests, and hosts the free flow of information for us. We must do it ourselves. We shouldn’t follow, we should lead, in the fight to preserve our own freedom and liberty.

            We shouldn’t have to bypass national controls. We shouldn’t have to be forced to support a massive bureaucracy, an autocracy, that censors information. That autocracy shouldn’t be allowed to form or exist. There is no need to even flirt with the worst case, of having to resort to foreigners to provide freedom.

            When you surrender small bits of freedom and liberty, the totalitarians just come for the next bits, and then the next, and the next…

            • FrenchNewsonlin

              100 per cent correct VG, well said.

      • pigou_a

        You’re right, Fraser lost this argument months ago.

        Newspapers are just barbarous relics from a less informed era. I wasn’t alive in the 70s, consequently I know of no one my age that regularly buys a newspaper, let alone subscribes to one. Physical newspapers will not exist in 10 years time.

        A more interesting question is why do our delightful politicians continue to prostrate themselves in front of newspapers? They’re a dying industry with rapidly dwindling circulations and influence.

        It’s hard to take the Spectator seriously on press freedoms given they’ve published virtually nothing on the Snowden leaks. Fraser gets in a tizzy about a charter, but says nothing when the State marches into a newspaper’s offices and sets about destroying hard drives? Does he think his readers are that stupid?

        It’s quite simple. They have no credibly. They have no future.

  • Daniel Maris

    “I don’t want to get into a long argument” – yes, no surprise there: we already knew you prefer the brief shallows of voguish sentiment, Cameron.

    • Swanky

      Six down-votes for that comment, Daniel? Britain is wackier than I thought, and more irrational.

  • HookesLaw

    Typical pointless interview by Mr Nelson. Obsessing about bogus press freedom. The ‘press’ contain some of the most ignorant bigoted people in the country. They have never cared about honour truth and decency.

    • Daniel Maris

      Did Santa not bring the present you asked for?

      We don’t ask that our journalists we honourable, truthful or decent…we ask that they be free of government interference.

      • Alexsandr

        yes -so they are free to investigate wrongdoing by MPs’

    • Colonel Mustard

      A raucous press is the hallmark of freedom. When people like you start making the rules then I’m worried.

      • Andy

        Exactly Colonel. The Press should ‘publish and be damned’.

  • Denis_Cooper

    It only needs cross-party agreement at the leadership level to get a two-thirds majority of MPs voting for something under directions from their party whips. It’s not as if MPs are free agents, each of whom would consider the matter very carefully and come to his own conclusion on how to vote. Even if it’s nominally a free vote that doesn’t stop the party leaders trying to impose their will on MPs who are accustomed to accepting the role of mere lobby fodder. As for the Lords, well maybe it would be more difficult to corral a two-thirds majority of the members of that House as presently constituted, but if it became an elected House that would be a different matter. So while the “two-thirds lock” is some kind of defence against the political leaders unduly interfering with the freedom of the press it is an imperfect defence.

  • swatnan

    The Press, the 4th Estate, will always win, unless that isf course the 5th Estate the People’s Assembly, holds the ultimate power.

    • HookesLaw

      ‘peoples’ assembly’? We all know how that ended during the french revolution

      • swatnan

        Yes, Democracy, a Republic, the Decimal system 10 months instead of 12, and One Supreme Being. A Renaisance in the Arts and Sciences and Literature. Not much, too soon to judge the benefits of the French Revolution?

  • Colonel Mustard

    Cameron talks about government as though there is no such thing as parliament. He gives the impression that if “a less liberal, enlightened government” were to legislate he would stand up as leader of an opposition and applaud – as he did for Blair.

    He’s done his bit. He says nothing about further challenging or opposing the enemies of press freedom.

    Weak. No grit. A weathervane man whose actions are defined by his enemies and whose actions are vastly outnumbered by his empty words.

    • HookesLaw

      idiot comments
      We went to war against germany without a vote in parliament.

      • Colonel Mustard

        An opinion I am entitled to hold and to express. Better an idiot comment than idiot abuse that serves no purpose at all. You are a rude man and it makes me ashamed to think you pose as a conservative.

        • southerner

          He’s no conservative. He’s a Cameron-loving sheep dedicated to furthering the left of centre anti-British European project.

          • David Lindsay.

            Last Week HookesLaw treated to another piece of idiocy “Both Telegraphs are rags – sad pathetic shadows of their former standing”. In truth he pays lip service to an idealised Cameron Government but will not support Conservative institutions, the Telegraph being just one case in point. If he wants to sign up to a party he should stand by its values.

            • southerner

              When he gets back later from his shift at McDonalds no doubt he will enlighten us further.

      • David Kay

        what an ignorant comment from and ignorant left wing idiot masquerading as a person with conservative values. We went to war with Germany because of a legal obligation in a Treaty that had the support of both houses of parliament. When the Krauts invaded Poland we had no alternative but to declare war.

        ignorant idiotic leftists like HookesLaw never supported the war until their communist lovers were invaded by Germany.

      • D Roberts

        Don’t know how we got onto this Hitler business from the subject of Press Freedom – although Hitler certainly wasn’t a fan – he even burt all the books as well, just to make sure.

        So Colonel Cameron [with apologies to Gaddafi] now wants a Royal Charter for the Press! I bet he bloody does! If you want an object lesson on how a ‘Royal Charter’ works just look at the poor old BBC. Every time they say something ‘U’Gov’ dosen’t like they have to fire loads of journalists, editorial staff, etc., change the whole Managements Structure – pile ‘Trusts’ upon Trusts! ; and we have to pay £147 pa – the last time I looked, for this Stalinist creation?

    • sarahsmith232

      So true, so true. He does nothing more than blow in the focus grouped wind, that one. How many empty and bogus speeches are we up to now? How many times did he state that the Tories didn’t just say that they were going to get something done about immigration but intended to get something done? He’s done nothing, he never intended to do anything, it’s been the same story as Labour. The constant speeches accompanied by zero action. Shameful.

      • Swanky

        Except that Labour *did* act, and Britain has been paying for it, financially and in every other way, ever since.

      • James Allen

        It is more than shameful, it is downright dangerous. Fifty years ago, when a pol said he would do something, by and large it got done. He didn’t need legions of ‘press officers’ in every govt department to pre-brief what he was about to say, before making a PR announcement about getting ‘tough’ on this, that or the other, followed by either a complete reversal of policy or a half-arsed attempt to implement just some of what he had promised, which was misleading and derisory in the first place.

        The danger lies in the fact that the British public – who are not as stupid as the pols imagine – are aware they are being played and have therefore lost faith in the entire political process. And once the tissue of consent for democratic institutions is gone, the only way to express opposition to govt policy is through civil disobediance or worse. But I hope it is not too late…. and there are signs of a fightback… (UKIP)

    • sarah_13

      I do agree and intuitively think Cameron should be constantly making the argument for a free press, exposing the damage done by labour allowing unelected vested interests to make policy, an indicator of what they would do in office, and considering the real difficulties for papers if capricious litigants can tie them up in limitation and even if those litigants lose the PAPER has to pay their costs if they don’t sign up. How can that possibly be voluntary. However there is truth in what he says many of his own mps voted for regulation, i don’t understand why but instead of making the argument to their own constituents, explaining what is at risk, they are unthinkingly advocating regulation so what he is saying is that if labour gets in there is a risk of more onerous regulation.

    • James Allen

      My friends, I have grown tired of waiting to hear someone in the ‘commentariat’ talk sense. Isn’t it remarkable that 20% of the British public support UKIP and yet a fraction – maybe less than 1% – of the journalists writing and broadcasting in the media share those views?

      Journalists are SHEEP. Expect nothing of intelligence from them. Instead, go to Youtube and listen to Nigel Farage, Mark Steyn, Douglas Murray and the like. I thank you.

  • Portendorfer

    Perhaps the majority of your readers will be less persuaded by the nuances of words (recognition not compliance) and will very simply see you advocating a Press Complaints Commission by another name, and we all know how effective the PCC were in protecting us from the ravages of the News of the World.

    • huktra

      A cousin of mine had the press camped out on her doorstep for 48 hours simply because she shared a surname with a minor celebrity accused of a pretty bad crime.
      A complaint to the PCC produced no discernible action and no apology.
      Surely the press need to do something to address such distressing episodes.

      • mickc

        Yes, I had the same experience.
        When I explained I wasn’t connected, they went away-no problem.

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