by Atul Hatwal
So now we know, it’s next week. Lord Leveson will finally publish his long delayed report on Thursday 29th November, complete with recommendations on the future of press regulation.
For many months now, the conventional Westminster village wisdom has been clear: Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg will back the report while David Cameron will demur.
The prime minister will kick the report into the long grass and accept the public’s opprobrium because (a) backing the newspapers’ position will guarantee better coverage for his government as the next election approaches; and (b) most people already think the worst of him on this issue with few swing voters likely switch their allegiance on the basis of press regulation.
But, as Lord Leveson’s report goes to the printers, this wisdom is looks increasingly askew. It fundamentally misreads the credibility of the newspaper owners’ blandishments and threats – and the evidence suggests number ten knows this.
The owners might privately brief the government in warm terms about better coverage tomorrow if Leveson is blocked today, but word are cheap; would they really follow through?
There is a deep scepticism within number ten that the attack dogs of the Daily Mail, Telegraph and Sun will meekly roll over and give the government a pass for the next three years.
A story is a story and in the cutthroat competition of the newspaper market, few will refuse the opportunity to hurt the government if it drives sales. At the margins, perhaps some stories might be soft pedalled, but collectively supressing major news would be commercially counter-productive.
The Andrew Mitchell farrago is frequently cited as an example of the discretionary pain that can inflicted by keeping a story running past its sell-by date and indicative of the fate that awaits the government if it bucks the barons. But, while it is true the papers helped kick on the story, this version of events ignores the role of the police federation and Mitchell’s own bad judgement.
The federation were the ones pushing and challenging at every turn while Mitchell prolonged his own agony with his equivocation and poor press management. Without the police federation and Mitchell’s disastrous responses this story would have swiftly subsided from public view regardless of the wishes of the newspaper proprietors.
Strategically the newspapers are in a difficult situation.
If the basis for their unhappiness with David Cameron is press regulation, are they seriously going to back Ed Miliband at the next election as a leader? Is Ed Miliband going to take a more laissez faire approach? All the owners need do is read their own papers to understand where Labour is on this issue.
The reality is that it is not David Cameron that needs the newspapers; they need him. Otherwise the press owners will face much tougher regulation under a new Labour government in 2015.
Two weeks ago, the first evidence of the government’s recognition of actual nature of their position emerged.
42 Conservative MPs wrote to the Guardian expressing their support for some statutory regulation of the press. Two points were significant about this intervention: the identity of the letter’s organiser and its signatories.
The letter was initiated by George Eustice, MP for Camborne, Redruth and Hayle but in a previous life David Cameron’s press officer as he ran for the leadership. The standard media narrative on Eustice is that he holds a grudge against News International and the newspapers because he was pushed out in favour of Andy Coulson.
Although there is likely an element of personal animus to Eustice’s actions, to characterise it just as sour grapes fundamentally misunderstands recent history.
Eustice’s reading of the Blair and Brown years was that Labour had become far too close to the newspapers and beholden to them. The new Conservative leader needed to keep them at arms’ length to avoid his future administration being sucked into the kind of psychodrama that characterised Labour’s time in office.
Regardless of whether this analysis is right or wrong (for my money, there is a lot right with it), the key point is that at the start of his leadership David Cameron believed in it.
He might have then shifted when he appointed Andy Coulson, but after the political pain and damage inflicted by his slide into the embrace of the Murdoch empire, Cameron is personally now nearer his initial position on what constitutes the proper relationship with the press.
When George Eustice started canvassing MPs to sign his letter, he did it with Downing street’s full knowledge. They didn’t stop him or try to discourage signatories in part because they do not buy the newspaper industry’s combination of threats and offers, but partially because the man at the top now wants to go back to the Eustice model for press management.
This is why there was such a range of MPs signing the letter. Beyond some of the expected signatories from the Tories’ dwindling left flank and those who might have suffered at the hands of the press, were the likes of Nadim Zahawi and Gavin Barwell.
Zahawi is part of George Osborne’s inner circle. He did not sign without consulting the chancellor and had clearly had Osborne’s blessing. Similarly, Gavin Barwell is Michael Gove’s PPS and consulted his boss before signing.
In both cases, this does not mean Osborne and Gove are personally supportive of regulation (patently not in Gove’s case) but it does show that the government has taken a political decision: through the actions of their backbench loyalist proxies, they want to demonstrate they are not implacably opposed to action and outline the type of regulation that might be acceptable.
The result of these developments could be enormously significant. Whisper it quietly, as long as Lord Leveson’s proposals are reasonable, the government maybe about to back some regulation of the press.
Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut