POLITICS

Mehdi's Morning Memo: The Death Of A 'Free Press'. Or Maybe Not.

19/03/2013 08:18 GMT | Updated 19/03/2013 08:26 GMT

The ten things you need to know on Tuesday 19 March 2013...

1) THE DEATH OF A 'FREE PRESS'. OR MAYBE NOT.

The papers aren't happy. "Cameron, Miliband and Clegg shackle the press," says the Mirror headline. "Press deal divides parties and alarms newspapers," declares the headline in the Times. "Cameron deal is 'threat to free press'," claims the Telegraph headline. The Independent - whose editor is the only editor so far to accept 'the deal' - has the starkest splash of all: "Hold the front page!" (Disclaimer: the Huffington Post UK ain't too happy about the proposals either, and the views reflected in this Memo are my own, not my employer's.)

The Guardian reports:

"A shellshocked newspaper industry was struggling to come to terms with a sudden all-party agreement to create a powerful new press regulator designed to prevent a repeat of the phone-hacking scandal.

"The independent regulator will have powers to impose fines and demand prominent corrections, and courts will be allowed to impose exemplary damages on newspapers that fail to join the body.

"... The newspapers are furious that Cameron's policy adviser, the Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin, sealed the deal at 2.30am on Monday morning in Miliband's office, accompanied by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and four members of the victims' group Hacked Off."

'Furious' is an understatement. The Times leader notes: "Last week Mr Cameron walked out of cross-party talks, demanding that regulation should not be based on statute. That was a Rubicon, he said, which should not be crossed. When it became clear that he faced both an alliance of the Liberal Democrats and Labour and a rebellion from his own backbenchers, he swam the river."

The Telegraph leader observes: "The three party leaders urged the newspaper industry to endorse the new dispensation as quickly as possible. However, after 318 years of a free press, its detail deserves careful consideration."

The Times leader also points out that "websites and blogs, which did not expect to be covered by the new regulatory regime, were left puzzled when they appear to have been included." The paper concludes: "This is a deal with many flaws; its only virtue is that it is not the press law that Lord Justice Leveson proposed. Yesterday was a bleak episode in the story of freedom of the press in Britain."

The Sun refers to "a dark, bleak day for Britain".

Personally, while I accept that it was a shoddy and childish way to do a deal on an issue of such import and I do wonder how regulation of the internet will work, I can't help but think that all this talk of 'freedom under threat' is pure hyperbole.

Remember: both Denmark and Ireland have press regulators backed by statute and yet both countries are ranked much higher than the UK in the Reporters Without Borders league table of international press freedom. Also, as Nick Clegg pointed out in the Commons last year, in his statement on the Leveson Report:

"The Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Star, The Sun, The Sunday Times, The Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Mirror are all members [of the Irish Press Council] --they all publish Irish editions. I have not yet heard those papers complain of a deeply illiberal press environment across the Irish sea."

Indeed.

2) 'PREMATURE, SELF-DEFEATING AND COMPLETELY AT ODDS WITH ECONOMIC THEORY'

Those are just some of the criticisms levelled at George Osborne's austerity measures by three former members of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee (MPC). Adam Posen, Sushil Wadhwani and David Blanchflower all spoke to me ahead of Wednesday's Budget.

Posen says: "The current programme is not even working on its narrow terms of reducing the deficit so any responsible government should reconsider its programme."

Wadhwani says: “The numbers are in… we are halfway through a lost decade.”

Blanchflower says Osborne is the "most inept chancellor in 100 years. We have the worst economic recovery since the late 19th century.”

You can read my full piece, featuring interviews with the three men, and their advice for the chancellor, here.

3) SHAKING A CONTINENT

The Guardian reports:

"Cyprus took the unprecedented step on Monday of closing its banks until Thursday as officials scrambled to renegotiate the terms of a controversial bailout that threatens to force savers to take a €5.8bn (£5bn) hit to their deposits.

"Finance ministers from the 17-country eurozone held an emergency video conference call and concluded that small depositors should not be hit as hard as others. They said the Cypriot authorities could stagger the deposit seizures, but remained firm in demanding that the overall sum of money raised remained the same.... The announcement came amid recriminations over the aid package, particularly in Moscow, where a spokesman for Vladimir Putin attacked the plan as "unfair, unprofessional and dangerous".

"... Europe's banking authorities are on high alert for signs of Spanish and Italian savers moving their cash out of national banks for fear of a similar raid."

The paper's leader warns: "It is only half an island, but what is going on in Cyprus could yet shake a continent."

The Times reports:

"Cyprus is set to reject a controversial levy on savings when it goes to the vote today, pushing the Mediterranean island closer to a debt default and banking collapse.

"The decision comes after Nicos Anastasiades, the Cyprus President held talks over-night with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor and Russian president Vladimir Putin over the proposed raid on bank accounts which would see up to 10 percent of savings of over € 100,000 confiscated."

The Mail, meanwhile, continues to focus on the British angle. "Betrayal of our boys in Cyprus," is the splash headline; the paper says:

"Ministers were accused of betraying British troops last night after it emerged they will be hit by the EU raid on Cypriot banks after all.

"Servicemen will only be compensated for 'reasonable losses' if their funds are 'connected with their service in Cyprus'."

4) LOCK 'EM UP

I've interviewed Labour's shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna, ahead of the Budget. I asked him whether he agreed with those members of the public who say, five years on from the crash, it's time for lying and cheating bankers in the City to be locked up.

“I agree with that,” he told me. “I think, ultimately, one of the principal ways that we will effect a culture change in the financial services sector, which we need, is when people are put behind bars for what is attempted fraud and criminal practices on a grand scale.”

You can read the full interview here - on bankers, business, the two Eds and 'The Fresh Prince of Bel Air'.

5) TAX BREAKS FOR NANNIES

From the Telegraph's splash:

"More than 2.5 million families will each be able to claim up to £1,200 to help subsidise the costs of child care under a £1 billion scheme to be unveiled by David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

"From the autumn of 2015, working parents will be able to claim vouchers to subsidise nannies or child care for every child under five, with the scheme expected to be extended to all children under 12 by about 2020.

"It will initially benefit 1.3 million families, who will be able to claim up to £1,200 for each young child — rising to 2.5 million families when the scheme is extended. They will effectively not have to pay basic-rate tax on the first £6,000 they spend on child care.

"... George Osborne, the Chancellor, is expected to set out in Wednesday’s Budget how the scheme will be funded.

Yet as the Resolution Foundation's James Plunkett pointed out in a blogpost for HuffPost UK late last year: "In its simplest form, making childcare tax deductible would be a tax break for nannies. It would give higher rate taxpayers twice as big a benefit as basic rate taxpayers and would give most of all to those who can already afford to spend the most."

BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...

Watch this video of a cat that sounds like a billy goat.

6) FOOD BANKS: THE RICH LIST

My colleague Jessica Elgot reports:

"Food banks will come under intense pressure to cope with new demand after the government’s April welfare reforms come into force, the head of the UK’s Trussell Trust has warned ahead of this week’s budget.

"The charity has urged the Chancellor to recognise the UK’s hidden hungry by releasing new details of the richest areas where people are still forced to resort to food banks – including one round the corner from the Queen.

"Trussell Trust Executive Chairman Chris Mould told HuffPost UK: 'There is a Trussell Trust foodbank a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace and another in the seeming rural idyll of Chipping Camden. Hunger is everywhere, but it’s often hidden.'"

7) SNUBBING THE POPE?

From the Daily Mail:

"David Cameron and the Queen will not attend the inauguration of Pope Francis.

"There were suggestions that the move might be seen as a snub after Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner revealed that she had asked the pontiff to intervene in her country’s dispute with Britain over the Falkland Islands.

"But a Downing Street spokesman said last night that the Prime Minister’s decision to send Cabinet ministers Baroness Warsi and Kenneth Clarke to the inauguration ‘is absolutely nothing to do with the Falklands’."

8) 'ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT'

From the Guardian:

"Ministers have not fully thought through the implications of their social care reforms, a hard-hitting report has found.

"The draft care and support bill, designed to create a single law for adult care and support in England, could leave local authorities open to a 'deluge of disputes and legal challenges', a cross-party group of MPs and peers said."

"... Former care minister Paul Burstow, chair of the joint committee on the bill, said: 'We need care and support to be more focused on prevention and more joined up with health and housing. There is much in the government's draft bill to welcome – it cuts through a complex web of arcane legislation that people struggle with. But there is room for improvement.'"

9) AM I BOVVERED?

From the BBC:

"Iraqis would have rebelled against Saddam Hussein if there had been no invasion and it would have been "a lot worse than Syria", Tony Blair has said.

"Iraqis previously 'rose up in large numbers and were killed in very large numbers', the former UK PM said.

"Asked if he had regrets, he said: 'How can you regret removing a monster who created enormous carnage.'"

179 British troops killed, 100s of thousands of Iraqis dead, no WMDs, ongoing chaos and terror across Iraq - but Blair? No regrets.

Meanwhile, according to a ComRes poll for ITV News, almost six in ten (57%) voters think the former PM deliberately lied about the threat of Iraq stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, a majority (51%) agree that the removal of Saddam Hussein was not worth the lives of 179 British soldiers and a majority also agree (52%) that the Iraq war cannot be morally justified on humanitarian grounds given the number of Iraqi civilian casualties.

10) I DO WANT TO BE PM

Hey Dave, Boris has something he wants to tell you. From the BBC:

"Documentary maker Michael Cockerell told the Radio Times that when asked whether he harboured any desires for the top job, Mr Johnson answered: 'I think it's a very tough job being prime minister.

"'Obviously, if the ball came loose from the back of a scrum - which it won't - it would be a great, great thing to have a crack at.

"'But it's not going to happen.'"

The Telegraph has further details from the forthcoming BBC documentary and what Johnson told Cockerell:

"He also spoke of his memories of Mr Cameron from their school days at Eton, saying he could 'dimly remember' the Prime Minister as 'a tiny chap' and referring to his old schoolmate as 'Cameron Minor'."

QUOTE UNQUOTE

"I would trust [Ed Miliband] with my life." - Labour's Chuka Umunna, speaking to the Huffington Post. Now there's loyalty...!

PUBLIC OPINION WATCH

From today's Sun/YouGov poll:

Labour 40

Conservatives 32

Lib Dems 11

Ukip 10

That would give Labour a majority of 92.

140 CHARACTERS OR LESS

‏@DouglasCarswell Big Society, eh? Press and media outlets to be overseen by quangocrats. #Leveson

@Lord_Sugar Can you believe the proposal in Cyprus. Unless I am going nuts are they saying they will simply take 10% or more from peoples bank account ?

@Simon_Nixon Interesting that both #Leveson watchdog and #Cyprus bailout cobbled together at 2AM. Politicians need their beauty sleep. @BBCr4today

900 WORDS OR MORE

Benedict Brogan, writing in the Telegraph, says: "Crosby’s cunning plan for a Tory victory – no more stupid ideas."

Rachel Sylvester, writing in the Times, says: "Cameron needs a lesson in style from Bowie."

Aditya Chakrabortty, writing in the Guardian says: "The Cyprus eurozone bailout conditions are bank robbery pure and simple."

Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Mehdi Hasan (mehdi.hasan@huffingtonpost.com) or Ned Simons (ned.simons@huffingtonpost.com). You can also follow us on Twitter: @mehdirhasan, @nedsimons and @huffpostukpol