MPs set to propose press ombudsman: Watchdog would have hotline

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THE Commons National Heritage Select Committee is poised to recommend an independent ombudsman to order corrections and to fine newspapers that seriously breach the industry's code of conduct.

A key element of the committee's report on privacy and media intrusion, due for publication on Tuesday, is expected to be provision for a complaints hotline to the ombudsman.

The line, to provide instant redress against excessive harassment, should be open to third parties as well as victims, committee members believe.

The ombudsman would have to be a judicial or similar figure to command respect and ensure he or she is perceived as independent, the report is likely to recommend, and should complement the Press Complaints Commission, the existing self-regulatory body.

That could see the commission retaining responsibility for drafting codes of practice while the ombudsman enforced them. Heavyweight libel complaints would still have to be pursued in the courts.

Such a package might prove attractive to the Government. It agreed with Sir David Calcutt's Review of Press Self-Regulation in January that the commission was ineffective. But it also all but ruled out his proposal for a high-powered statutory tribunal.

The compromise was floated in evidence to the committee by Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, but the system would remain essentially self-regulatory - and financed by the industry. Its success would therefore depend on voluntary compliance with the ombudsman's rulings, which would not be legally binding.

While informal pressure would ensure that many newspapers published apologies or paid damages, the acid test would be the attitude of the tabloids.

The committee is expected to back government plans to create criminal offences to stop eavesdropping, but has dropped plans to call for legal aid to be extended to defamation cases.

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