Section 40: The Promises
While David Cameron says today that no decision has been made on delivering the crucial Section 40 element of the Leveson reform package, in the past he has promised both explicitly and implicitly that Section 40 would happen.
The promises began as long ago as 29 Nov 2012:
‘What is absolutely vital is that we put in place a regulatory system that they [the victims of press abuses] can see has got real teeth. They want to know that it is independent; they want to know that it can achieve big fines; they want to know that it can call editors to account.’
The Leveson Report made the meaning of ‘real teeth’ specific, and in March 2013 Cameron publicly, explicitly and formally endorsed Leveson’s criteria for effective and independent press self-regulation in the form of the Royal Charter.
At the same time Cameron also publicly endorsed and saw into law Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which is the instrument that gives the Royal Charter ‘real teeth’. He said this:
‘We will also change the rules on costs and civil claims against publishers so that there is a strong incentive to come inside the regulator, with its independent arbitration system.’
That is unequivocal. He did not say: ‘We may also change the rules.’ He said ‘We will also change the rules.’ He did not add any riders or qualifiers, no mention of possible delays. He simply and clearly promised that this ‘will’ happen.
In case there was any doubt, Cameron’s then Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, told the Commons on the same day, in a specific reference to Section 40:
‘We have before us an important set of real incentives that have real effect to make sure that we can move forward, with today as a turning point where we stop talking about the theory of Leveson and start putting the practice of Leveson out for everybody to benefit from it. The provisions are a crucial part of this tough new regulatory regime and I commend them whole-heartedly to the House.’
In fact there is a whole catalogue of promises on this from Conservative ministers. See them here.
The promises broken
Yet when the moment came to ‘commence’ Section 40 last November nothing happened. Cameron’s Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, failed to implement the change in the rules.
And when victims of press abuse including Kate and Gerry McCann and Christopher Jefferies wrote to Cameron urging him to honour his promises to them, he referred in his reply to the need for the government to make ‘the decision on when to commence the costs provisions’.
In other words, the delay in commencing Section 40 would continue. It might continue for years and perhaps indefinitely. Nothing would please the proprietors and editors of the big corporate papers more than this.
Cameron’s past promises, however, were explicit. He told the victims that he would ‘put in place a regulatory system that they can see has got real teeth’, and he told Parliament and the country that ‘we will also change the rules on costs and civil claims’. There was nothing then to suggest he would delay these measures and there must be no further delay now.