Newspapers seek to avert threat of Parliament introducing statutory element to press regulation

  • @iburrell

Newspaper publishers face a crunch 48 hours as editors hold a succession of meetings to try to avert the threat of Parliament introducing new press laws to regulate Fleet Street.

Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, will meet editors from across Fleet Street tomorrow in the company of the Prime Minister. The politicians will demand radical concessions to the current system of self-regulation in order to convince MPs and the public that press laws - as recommended by Lord Justice Leveson in a report last week - are unnecessary.

The newspapers must find a unified position but they remain riven by division. On one side of the split are those news organisations – led by the publishers of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph - who back proposals by Lord Black of Brentwood and Lord Hunt of Wirral for an enhanced self-regulatory system funded by something provisionally called the Industry Funding Body.

Favouring more radical change, an axis of titles made up of The Independent, the London Evening Standard, The Guardian and the Financial Times argues that the Black-Hunt proposals offer insufficient guarantee of independence. Lord Hunt, a former Tory cabinet minister, is the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), the regulatory body that is being replaced. Lord Black is a former chief executive of the PCC and is executive director of the Telegraph Media Group.

Other publishers sit somewhere in between, including Richard Desmond, owner of the Daily Express and Daily Star, who did not join the PCC but is anxious to be part of a new regulator that is not backed by statute.

Ms Miller told MPs today that legislating to enforce effective regulation is still possible, if the industry fails to set up a genuinely tough and independent self-regulatory body.

Mrs Miller told MPs the status quo was “not an option”. She warned: “The Prime Minister is clear - we will see change. That change can either come with the support of the press or - if we are given no option - without it. Be in no doubt that if the industry doesn’t respond, the Government will.

“We will not accept a puppet show with the same people pulling the same strings.”

Mrs Miller’s comments came after cross-party talks with Labour culture spokeswoman Harriet Harman and Liberal Democrat Lord Wallace, whose leaders have both voiced support for legislation.

Labour sources characterised the talks, which lasted around 30 minutes, as “constructive” and said leader Ed Miliband was still hoping to find a way of moving forward on the basis of consensus.

The Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman suggested it would be mad to expect the press to get its house in order without oversight backed by law, telling MPs: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and and expecting a different outcome.”

Ms Miller revealed that Lord Leveson, who entertains ambitions of becoming the new Lord Chief Justice, may not chair the second part of his own inquiry.

The Prime Minister David Cameron and Lord Justice Leveson have also been called to give evidence to a parliamentary committee considering the judge’s report on press regulation.

The funding of a future model is another source of contention, with the more radical group convinced that an entirely new structure from the PCC’s finance body, the Edinburgh-based Press Standards Board of Finance (Pressbof), must be set up. The Guardian has compared the Hunt-Black idea of an Industry Funding Body as a “multi-tentacled octopus”.

Others argue that it is not as simple as merely handing the new regulator a budget. Obtaining financial contributions from all members (including regional press groups who did nothing to provoke the Leveson inquiry) would be difficult if they were not allowed a say on how their money is spent, it is argued. 

The press is also having difficulty in identifying figures who might comprise an audit panel that would ensure the new regulator is operating effectively. The Guardian has suggested that the retiring lord chief justice, Igor Judge, might be a suitable candidate, along with Shami Chakrabrati, the director of human rights group Liberty and the only member of Leveson’s panel to oppose statutory underpinning of a new regulator.

On Wednesday another meeting of editors will be convened by the editor of The Times, James Harding, who favours putting a new regulatory system in the hands of the judiciary, a position that does not enjoy wider support. Harding’s own position was less clear today after his company News Corp announced major management changes including the departure of the News International chief executive Tom Mockridge.

Also on Wednesday, Lord Hunt – who will attend today’s meeting with the Culture Secretary - will gather a group of news publishers together in another attempt to build unity. There is a sense within the industry that failure to formulate a model that is regarded as genuinely independent will give the Prime Minister no alternative but to introduce statute.