Updated: Monday, 16th September 2019 @ 5:20pm

‘High-risk strategy’: Greater Manchester MP says vote on press regulation is big gamble for Prime Minister

‘High-risk strategy’: Greater Manchester MP says vote on press regulation is big gamble for Prime Minister

By Mihaela Ivantcheva

Greater Manchester MP John Leech believes Prime Minister David Cameron is taking a big gamble after breaking off all-party talks over future press regulation.

Mr Cameron is summoning MPs from as far away as Japan to a high-risk vote on Monday over a historic Royal Charter to regulate the press.

The Prime Minister might be facing a defeat in the Commons next week after he walked away from the talks curtailing months of discussions between the three main parties, the media and campaigners.

Mr Leech, Liberal Democrat MP for Manchester Withington, said: “When the Tories walked away on Friday, it came as a surprise because there were speculations that a deal was going to be struck. I think, given where we started, a lot of progress was made and then it ended being quite a shock that suddenly Tories just walked away.”

Mr Leech believes that the Murdochs are still influencing the process and blamed Cameron for putting his friends in the media ahead of press victims and the general public.

At the same time, the Guardian, the Financial Times and the Independent called for greater openness and transparency in the closed-doors negotiations.

“I don’t quite understand the position that Cameron has taken because it seems to be a fairly high-risk strategy. If there are enough people to defeat the Tories on Monday, Cameron is going to look really weak.

“I understand that there are MPs being recalled from places as far away as Japan to be here for the vote on Monday,” Mr Leech said.

Liberal Democrat MPs who are not expected to be in Parliament on Monday are also being told they have to be present for the vote.

At this stage it is impossible to predict the outcome on Monday. There will be an opportunity for MPs to vote on a Royal Charter and on a regulation backed by statute.

Tory rebels who backed Leveson are under pressure to support the prime minister.

“There is a clear majority in both houses, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, in favour of a regulation backed by statute. But whether or not that transpires into a vote that is won on regulation backed by statute is another matter,” Mr Leech added.

Liberal Democrats favour the idea of a press regulator whose independence is enshrined by statute. However, they have made clear that a Royal Charter could work just not the one that Tories proposed.

The amendments they tabled include a regulation backed by statute but also an alternative regulation backed with a Royal Charter, a beefed-up Royal Charter from the one that the Tories propose.

The biggest stumbling point seems to be the debates around the degree to which the press could control the conduct and membership of the new regulator. The Tories insist that the press should get the right to veto on members of the regulator if they had concerns about the impartiality of a member.

“It is like a football manager having a veto on either referee,” Mr Leech said.

Meanwhile, the newspaper industry is also split in their opinion of how press regulation could work.

Some papers welcomed Cameron’s initiative on Friday saying that the Prime Minister was right to reject statutory regulation as it would undermine 300 years of press freedom.

“The whole point about having regulation backed by statute is so that it puts the independence of the regulator on a legal footage. It is an independent regulator, it is not a state regulator.

“Clearly whatever is set up has to bring the press on board but the press are only going to be brought on board with the carrot and stick approach.

“The carrot and stick approach for getting newspapers on board is the prospect of exemplary damages and additional costs to newspapers found guilty in a court. We do not want people to have to go to court to get satisfaction. We want an independent regulator to do its job,” Mr Leech said.

If Labour and Lib Dem MPs vote together on Monday, they will have 313 votes against 303 conservative votes. Labour and Lib Dems continue to insist that a Royal Charter has to be backed up by legislation.

“It is not about interfering with the freedom of the press. It is about making sure that the press sticks to what they do best and that is investigative journalism within the law,” Mr Leech added.

Picture courtesy of WikiCommons, with thanks.

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