McGregor to step down as press watchdog

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THE CHAIRMAN of the Press Complaints Commission, Lord McGregor of Durris, is to step down at the end of the year as the newspaper industry attempts to salvage self-regulation.

The Press Standards Board of Finance, which finances the commission, has made it clear that Lord McGregor's contract, which ends in December, will not be renewed. Although his record has not been criticised by members of the funding body, which met last week, the Labour peer's position is regarded as politically untenable and a successor is being sought.

Sir Gordon Borrie, the former director general of fair trading and chairman of Labour's commission on social justice, is regarded as a front-runner although the appointment of another non-Conservative chairman would not soothe the Tory backbenches. But Sir Gordon is seen as someone with a proven record as a regulator and has fewer links with the press than Lord McGregor. Lord Colnbrook, formerly Sir Humphrey Atkins, a Conservative Northern Ireland Secretary, would be safer politically, but he is a less likely prospect. The salary is around pounds 60,000.

Lord McGregor, who is 71, will have served three years as chairman and the board is said to be unwilling to oust him before the end of his tenure.

The issue may be discussed this week when the board meets Peter Brooke, the Secretary of State for National Heritage. It requested the meeting to outline some of the changes it proposes for the commission in response to the Calcutt inquiry. These include giving it a majority of lay members, rather than journalists. Other ideas being debated include setting up a telephone line to give the public the names and numbers of newspaper executives who would deal with complaints.

Mr Brooke, however, is determined to leave the industry to put in place its own initatives, rather than to lay down conditions under which self-regulation would be acceptable to the Government. He is said to be anxious to avoid the situation surrounding the publication of the Calcutt report, when a concerted press campaign against statutory regulation forced the Government on to the defensive even before the document appeared.

Meanwhile, Mr Brooke will receive advice this week from the Attorney- General to determine whether his department has the power to ban Red Hot Dutch, the pornographic satellite television channel.

Plans to outlaw the channel under the Broadcasting Act have run into serious legal complications. It is feared that government action to outlaw it could fall foul of a European broadcasting directive which stipulates that broadcasting should be regulated from the country in which the programme- makers are established. With Red Hot Dutch licensed in the Netherlands, the Government is anxious to avoid taking any decision which might be challenged in the European Courts.

However, ministers will examine other legal ways of taking the station off the air if the Attorney-General advises against proceeding under the present proposals. They recognise that because of the pressure for action from Conservative backbenchers, the issue will not go away.