George Osborne today gave the clearest indication yet that the Government will not support proposals for sweeping changes to press regulation even if they are proposed by the Leveson Inquiry.
Giving evidence Mr Osborne made clear he did not believe that press regulation should be put on a statutory footing and appeared to rule out allowing “group complaints” against newspapers.
He also said he was not in favour of any attempt to prevent newspapers “blurring” news with comment and insisted that any future regulation must not just cover newspaper conduct but also material on the internet as well.
Mr Osborne is the second senior cabinet minister to express reservations about the extent of changes to press regulation which could be proposed by the Leveson Inquiry. David Cameron is expected to make similar points when he gives evidence on Thursday. However ministers are thought to back plans to allow a new press regulator to fine newspapers and direct when apologies and corrections should appear.
Speaking at the end of his evidence Mr Osborne said he was in favour of a new press regulator which would provide redress to ordinary citizens who felt they had been wronged – but hinted that he did not believe it should necessarily apply to politicians or celebrities who court the media.
“While the Press Complaints Commission has done some good it has lacked teeth and independence,” he said
“I would hope there would be some remedies about how you can help ordinary citizens not politicians and celebrities which was after all the origins of this inquiry.
“(but) In doing so you have got to be careful not to stray into issues like the blurring of comment and fact, which has featured in this inquiry, because I think you could be crossing over a line (in) restricting on free speech which would be damaging to democracy.
When Lord Justice Leveson pointed out that the Press Complaints Commission already required the separation of fact and comment Mr Osborne appeared to suggest this would be wrong to enforce.
“That is part of the colour of a free press in our society,” he said. “It makes the press more effective at holding politicians to account than in some other countries.”
Mr Osborne also appear to dismiss suggestions for a journalistic “kite mark” which could be withdrawn by a successor body to the PCC.
“I would be quite sceptical of getting into that kind of territory.”
Lord Justice Leveson said he had heard evidence from groups – such as the disabled and immigrants - who said they felt very disadvantaged by the way in which they were portrayed in the press and asked Mr Osborne whether they ought to be able to make collective complaints.
But Mr Osborne appeared to suggest that such restrictions might unnecessarily stifle public debate