Lord Justice Leveson's plans to introduce a statutory role for
newspaper regulation caused a split in his inquiry team
and could give crucial backing to David Cameron's
defence of a free press, it emerged last night.
A prominent member of Lord Justice Leveson's panel, the Liberty
director Shami Chakrabarti, is siding with the Prime
Minister and against the judge over the degree of
statutory involvement needed for new independent
regulation – the intractable issue which is dividing
Parliament, the media and victims of press intrusion.
Lord Justice Leveson held talks with Ms Chakrabarti to try to
persuade her to agree with
the rest of the inquiry team, The Independent on Sunday
understands, but failed to secure her full backing.
Ms Chakrabarti's views emerged yesterday, effectively throwing a
lifeline to Mr Cameron, who is at odds with not only
Lord Justice Leveson but with the Deputy Prime Minister,
Nick Clegg, most members of Parliament and the families
of Milly Dowler and Madeleine McCann, and other press
A petition calling for the UK's three main party leaders to bring
in a new press watchdog backed by law had attracted more
than 56,000 signatures last night, little more than 24
hours after its launch on Friday.
Mr Cameron has insisted he does not want to "cross the Rubicon" of
allowing any statutory role on regulation, including
passing legislation which establishes the new measures
in law, and allowing Ofcom, the broadcasting watchdog
which reports to ministers, a supervisory role over the
"independent" regulator. There are also concerns about
enshrining in law incentives to encourage newspapers to
join a new regulator and scrapping exemptions for public
interest journalism under the Data Protection Act.
It is even possible, say legal sources, that newspapers could use
the European Court of Human Rights to complain that
their freedoms are being infringed by full-blown
Fraught talks over how to reach agreement on Lord Justice Leveson's
recommendations will continue tomorrow. Ed Miliband and
David Cameron, who held "robust" exchanges in their
first meeting alongside Nick Clegg last Thursday, are to
temporarily step back from cross-party talks to take the
heat out of the discussions. Instead, Maria Miller, the
Culture Secretary, and her Labour shadow, Harriet
Harman, will join Simon Hughes for the Lib Dems in
trying to reach agreement. Mr Cameron will also attend
talks chaired by Ms Miller with newspaper editors about
a way forward, Downing Street announced last night.
There are differences of opinion among editors about the
shape of the regulator, and the Prime Minister's
intervention underscores the urgency of reaching
consensus among newspapers.
A source close to Mr Miliband, the Labour leader, stepped up
pressure on the Prime Minister, saying he needed to
"show the strength to do the right thing". "He is not
only defying the judge that he appointed, and the
families whom he said he would never let down, and the
whole of Parliament. This is a big moment for Cameron.
He needs to show leadership and strength that is
required to stand up for the public interest in the face
of very powerful vested interests."
There are between 40 and 70 Tory MPs siding with the majority of
Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs in wanting to see the
Leveson report recommendations implemented in full,
including statutory underpinning of a new regulator. Mr
Cameron has the backing of the majority of newspapers
and most Conservative members of his Cabinet, as well as
a substantial number of Tory MPs.
Madeleine McCann's father, Gerry, and the author JK Rowling, are
among the victims of press intrusion to put pressure on
Mr Cameron to change his mind about statutory
Yet in a crucial intervention that could change the nature of the
battle, Ms Chakrabarti, a member of the six-strong panel
of assessors, wrote in The Independent yesterday: "The
Prime Minister is right to be concerned about any
Government-appointed body 'supervising' the independent
regulator. That would bring about the danger of
political control by the back door. It is unnecessary
and must be resisted. Furthermore, the report contains a
last-ditch alternative of compulsory statutory
regulation, should the press be unwilling to implement
his proposed scheme. Again, the Prime Minister is right
to reject this unacceptable plan B, which Liberty would
be unable to support."
On the opening session of his inquiry in July last year, the judge
said that he would "strive for unanimity". But while she
backs the judge in the general thrust of the report, Ms
Chakrabarti opposes him over a key principle of how to
deliver the necessary incentives for newspapers to join
a new independent regulator.
Ms Chakrabarti's dissent is buried in the small print of the
Leveson report. On page 1,775, where the judge
recommends that Ofcom, which is a statutory body and
reports to ministers, is given new powers to oversee a
new press regulator, a footnote reveals that the Liberty
director is opposed to this key principle – seen inside
No 10 as one of the key "Rubicon", or red-line, issues.
The footnote reads: "Shami Chakrabarti has advised that she prefers
this role to be fulfilled by the court but I do not see
how the court, of its own motion, could adopt an
adjudicative role in relation to certification or
Ms Miller and Mr Cameron are to use the talks with editors to urge
them to reach agreement to show that statutory
intervention is not necessary.
The Government will publish a draft Bill, which the Culture
Secretary has said will be used to demonstrate that
legislation will be detailed and lengthy. But Labour
sources said that in Ireland, tougher press regulation
was contained in just two clauses in a defamation Bill.
Why do we cross the Rubicon?
The phrase "crossing the Rubicon", used by David Cameron in the
Leveson debate, means to take an irrevocable step in one
direction, and can be traced back to 49BC when Julius
Caesar and his 50,000-strong army crossed the river of
the same name on their way to Rome, effectively ushering
in the Roman Empire.
An ancient law meant that any general who crossed the Rubicon
River, to enter the Roman Republic with an army, would
be committing treason. If he did so, he would be
stripped of command and prosecuted. Caesar, although
hesitating, did cross, with his troops by his side.
Aware that he must either conquer Rome or die, he
famously said: "Alea iacta est" ("the die has been
Doubts linger over which river is the historical Rubicon, but it is
thought to be the river flowing through Savignano,
Italy. The town was renamed Savignano sul Rubicone by