* Decision to reject press law earns PM praise
* Puts poor electoral performance in the background
* Issue will not go away, parliamentary defeat possible
By Kate Holton and Michael Holden
LONDON, Nov 30 British Prime Minister David
Cameron woke on Friday to find usually hostile newspapers
gushing about his statesman-like qualities after he signalled
his opposition to a new law governing the press.
After his party suffered a night of humiliation in three
parliamentary elections, instead of facing questions over his
leadership, he was cheered for rejecting the main plank of
proposals from a public inquiry he set up in the wake of outrage
at the excesses of tabloid newspapers.
Under a headline over two pages lauding "Cameron's Stand for
Freedom", the right-wing Daily Mail said a "Defiant PM" had
refused to accept the call for laws to control the press.
"To his enormous credit, however, David Cameron sees this
report for what it is - a mortal threat to the British people's
historic right to know," it said in its editorial.
"If he prevails in protecting that right, with the help of
like-minded freedom lovers in the Commons and Lords, he will
earn a place of honour in our history."
The Daily Telegraph, another right-leaning newspaper that
has been far from fulsome in its support for Cameron, said the
unexpected decision had revealed his leadership and acceptance
that press freedom was "a constitutional necessity".
"His decision tells us also something about Mr Cameron's
capacity for statesmanship," the paper said in a commentary
piece on its front page. "He appreciates the need for decisions
that are unfashionable or unpopular.
"He has answered the hopes of a Conservative Party that
sometimes wonders what he stands for," it said, under a cartoon
mocking the inquiry with the line: (Caption to be supplied by
cross-party committee of MPs).
Cameron's clear sign he would reject the main recommendation
of the report from Lord Justice Brian Leveson followed a
year-long inquiry that heard in unflinching detail from
celebrities, victims of crime and others who said the
notoriously aggressive press had ruined their lives.
It also followed weeks of frantic lobbying by the newspapers
within Westminster, who argued any involvement of the law in
press regulation would amount to state control and an attack on
free speech, putting Britain on a par with Zimbabwe.
Critically, Cameron's stance also puts him on the same side
as the majority of his senior Conservative ministers who had
openly opposed legislation, and in alliance with Boris Johnson,
a former journalist and London mayor who is cheered by the press
and seen as a possible challenger to Cameron in the future.
While it will bolster his position in the eyes of press
barons ahead of a 2015 election, it is not without risk.
It puts him in clear opposition to Nick Clegg, leader of the
junior Liberal Democrat party in the coalition, and vulnerable
to defeat in parliament if the opposition force a vote.
It also earned him the condemnation of those who spoke out
against the press, including the families of murder victims, who
accused the prime minister of betrayal. Both the politicians who
oppose Cameron and the press victims plan to keep up the
pressure as lawmakers try to find a consensus.
Malcolm Rifkind, a Conservative party grandee and former
foreign secretary, told Reuters the pressure applied by senior
members of the cabinet had meant Cameron could not simply accept
the Leveson recommendations in full.
He had previously given his backing to statutory regulation.
He also described the lavish praise from the country's press
as a "mixed blessing" that should prompt caution in the party.
"Governments normally like press support but when it's press
support because you're not responding to what many people would
have liked but the press didn't want, then obviously you've got
to be careful," he said.
Commentators on the popular ConservativeHome website mostly
backed Cameron for showing backbone over the issue but even they
warned he should not get used to the adulation.
Rupert Murdoch's Sun tabloid, which has been particularly
tough on Cameron's government and would typically oppose any
apparent attack on the press, joined his Times paper in being
conciliatory towards Leveson and less exuberant about Cameron.
The 4 million pound ($6 million) inquiry was ordered after
the Sun's sister title the News of the World admitted hacking
into phone messages on an industrial scale to generate ever more
"Much of Lord Leveson's report on the press makes sense,"
the Sun said in its editorial, adding it applauded Cameron's
decision to oppose any legal basis for a new watchdog.
The only major newspaper to question Cameron's decision was
the left-leaning Guardian, which led much of the coverage of the
phone hacking scandal last year.
"The prime minister has surprised many, especially the
victims, with his multi-levelled concerns about statute," it
said. "It is not clear if this is a position of principle, or to
win friends on the Tory benches and in Fleet Street.
"Leveson was the seventh occasion in as many decades that an
inquiry has been commissioned into the behaviour of the press.
It's time to get it right."