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Miliband: Stand by victims of press
Ed Miliband has urged MPs to "stand up for the victims" of press abuse by enshrining a new press regulator in law in a crunch Commons vote.
"Monday is the day that politics has got to do the duty by the victims and has got to stand up for the victims," he told The Observer. "I think it is an important moment because we have had decades of failing to ensure that we have a system of press complaints and redress which means that ordinary people aren't left at the whim of a sometimes abusive press."
Rival proposals for a new system of newspaper self-regulation will face judgment on Monday in a high-stakes battle over the response to the phone hacking scandal. In a reversal of the Westminster status quo, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are lining up against the Conservatives in a coalition for a tougher regime.
Both sides propose using a royal charter to create a new watchdog body in response to the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry into abuses by the press. But the Lib/Lab version involves underpinning the system in legislation, something which has been opposed by Prime Minister David Cameron as a risk to press freedom. It also rules out a veto for the press over the membership of the watchdog and gives the regulator the power to enforce the publication of prominent apologies.
Mr Cameron - who dramatically pulled the plug on cross-party talks on Thursday - has said he will abide by the will of Parliament. Without an overall Commons majority, allies accept he is unlikely to win sufficient support for using the threat of punitive damages against non-participants to persuade papers to sign up. Despite efforts to shore up the vote - including bringing a minister back from Japan - a number of Tories are expected to back the Lib/Lab proposals. Mr Cameron insists his proposal is "the fastest possible way to deliver the strong self-regulation body that Leveson proposed that can put in place million-pound fines, prominent apologies and get justice for victims in this country". But Mr Miliband said politicians of all colours now needed to follow their instincts about what was right. He told The Observer: "Now we are at this moment which is a sort of crossroads: do we change or is it more of the same? I think we need to choose the right course, and I think it is a test of politics."
There was criticism of the failure to incorporate fully Lord Justice Leveson's proposals from the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. It was the revelation that News of the World journalists had hacked Milly's phone which prompted the paper's closure and the 16-month Leveson Inquiry. Bob and Sally Dowler said: "Given the considerable investment of time and money in the Leveson Inquiry, we are very disappointed to learn that Lord Justice Leveson's proposals may not now be taken forward if the politicians choose to ignore the recommendations of Lord Justice Leveson that were aimed at preventing the sort of abuses that we and so many others suffered," they said.
Hugh Grant, who fronts the Hacked Off campaign, said victims such as the Dowlers would support the Lib/Lab package even though a royal charter was not ideal and enacts Leveson only "reasonably well". The actor confirmed he called members of the shadow cabinet last week to warn them not to settle "much too early" amid signs of cross-party agreement. He also told BBC1's Andrew Marr Show: "If their scheme is set up and there is a £1 million fine, I will match it and give it to Comic Relief. It will not happen because they have designed an investigative scheme so labyrinthine and complex."
Chancellor George Osborne told the same show: "We want to make sure we have a system of press regulation that prevents the abuses we saw in the past happening again, but also makes sure we have a free press in this country. That is such a precious thing: people fought - and literally died - to give us a free press. The Prime Minister has already achieved a huge amount in protecting a free press from those who want to undermine it. I would say it would be great on Monday if we can get some kind of agreement, even at this late stage, between the parties. Because, frankly, I think press regulation which is achieved in a way which divides the political parties is not press regulation that is really going to last, and it is not going to be a press regulation which is deeply-rooted in our culture. There is still an opportunity for us to get together and get a press law that works. Ultimately we are not about grandstanding on this; we are about getting a press law that works."
Author JK Rowling - who gave evidence to Leveson about press intrusion into her family's privacy - said victims had been "hung out to dry" by Mr Cameron and urged Labour and the Liberal Democrats to "have the courage" to protect them. She said she would not "support anything that hampers the press's ability to hold power to account" but that the Leveson recommendations were "reasonable and proportionate". Press Complaints Commission chairman Lord Hunt said major publishers were ready to sign up to a tough new "Leveson compliant" watchdog but believed statutory underpinning would send a dangerous signal to the world about press freedom. He welcomed the parties' agreement on a royal charter and noted that Lord Justice Leveson concluded that "the last thing he wanted was statutory press regulation".
Labour's Harriet Harman told BBC1's Sunday Politics that she is hopeful a deal can be reached: "It's a very reasonable proposal so it seems a bit unreasonable that we can't reach agreement on it. But I think the House should have the opportunity to have its view on Monday. It would be better if the House was able to bless a proposal which had been agreed by all." Despite working "very closely" with Hacked Off, she insisted that Labour is not "the political wing of Hugh Grant".