Up to 2,000 publications will sign up to tougher regulator

Labour says it will draft Bill that could force Government’s hand on statutory underpinning

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The Independent Online

Up to 2,000 publications are ready to sign up to a tougher new press regulator without being compelled by new legislation, it emerged today.

Lord Hunt, the Tory peer who is co-ordinating industry efforts to agree a new press complaints body, said he had spoken to 120 publishers speaking on behalf of 2,000 editors who were all prepared to join.

He added that he was proposing they sign five-year rolling contracts to ensure publications could not “walk away” from the new regime.

The editors of Britain’s national newspapers are due to meet David Cameron and the Culture Secretary Maria Miller on Tuesday to discuss progress on creating a successor body to the soon-to-be-scrapped Press Complaints Commission. MPs will debate Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations in the Commons today.

Mr Cameron, who has called for the press to be given some time to get its house in order, will warn Fleet Street it must take swift action to set up an independent press watchdog to avoid the legislation.

The Department of Culture Media and Sport is currently drawing up draft legislation to show how potential statutory underpinning of the new body might look.  But critics claim the exercise is designed purely to prove that the process is unworkable and is not being taken seriously.

Today Labour ratcheted up the pressure on Mr Cameron by saying it intended to draft its own legislation that could be put to a vote in the House of Commons should the Government choose not to pursue the statutory option. Party sources said they believed legislation was “entirely workable” and proportionate and they could prove through their draft Bill that it would in no way jeopardise the freedom of the press.

However, they admitted that even if they successfully put their Bill to a vote in the House of Commons it could not become law – as opposition bills cannot form the basis of Acts of Parliament.

“If our Bill passed with cross-party support it would show David Cameron that he does not have the support of the House for his failure to implement the key recommendation of the Leveson Inquiry,” said a Labour source.

“We still hope to move ahead to try and find a cross-party consensus but we do not believe that it is possible without some form of statutory underpinning. What we want to do is prove that is possible without threatening the freedom of the press.”

Lord Hunt, who was brought in as chair of the PCC in a bid to reform an organisation widely seen as too weak, said he believed the industry was well on the way to agreeing proposals which would satisfy its critics – without the need for legislation.

“I have spoken to 120 publishers speaking on behalf of 2,000 editors. They have all told me they will sign up,” he said.

“I agree they should be bound in law… [but] I think that’s contractual law. It doesn’t need great acts of Parliament.” 

The Conservative MP John Whittingdale, who chairs the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, said he believed people backed self-regulation rather than new laws, saying legislation could stifle free speech.

“As people come to think about this carefully, they will realise the dangers of going down this road,” Mr Whittingdale said.

“The passing of legislation is only necessary if the press then demonstrates it will not accept the rulings of that body.

“It’s up to the press to prove it will go along with it. If it doesn’t, then there may need to be legislation.””