Culture secretary says that a consensus on the way forward is much closer than he would perhaps have predicted
The culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has said more agreement than expected had emerged on the “tougher” form of newspaper regulation that will emerge in the light of the phone-hacking scandal.
A new system would reject statutory regulation of press content while empowering an independent regulator to impose “credible punishment” on newspapers guilty of misconduct, Hunt said.
He said he wanted a new system in place before 2015 and, while not ruling out legislation, also hinted that he would prefer the newspaper industry voluntarily to produce its own regulatory framework.
Although Lord Justice Leveson has been asked to produce a report later this year saying how newspaper regulation could be improved, the Press Complaints Commission and editors have already started publicly floating proposals for a beefed-up regulatory regime.
In interviews on the Andrew Marr show and the World this Weekend on Sunday, Hunt said he was surprised how much progress had been made. “We’ve come much closer to a consensus on the way forward than I would perhaps have predicted,” he said.
While stressing that he wanted to put off any decisions until Leveson has published his recommendations, Hunt indicated that he agreed with the broad thrust of the consensus that was emerging.
“I think everyone recognises that we don’t want politicians telling people what to write, so no statutory regulation of press content,” he said. “But we do need a much tougher system to deal with newspapers who step out of line.
“Basically, the body that decides on whatever the punishments are for newspapers that step out of line needs to be fully independent from newspaper proprietors and current newspaper editors.”
Referring to the way in which Richard Desmond’s Express newspapers are no longer part of the PCC, Hunt said a new system would have to deal with “what’s called the Desmond problem, where people can just opt out of a system regulation if they don’t like it”.
He added: “There’s a lot of discussion going on about how you achieve that, but I think the shape – the bones, if you like – of what we’re going to end up with are beginning to become clearer.”
A new regulator would have to be able to impose “credible punishment”, he said, stressing that he hoped it would be in place before the end of this parliament. He also hinted that he would prefer a non-statutory solution if possible.
“I don’t know whether legislation would form part of the solution or not,” he said. “I would love the industry to come to me with their proposed solution, but what I would say to them is that whatever you propose must have the confidence of the public, because the public are not happy with what’s been going on.”
Hunt said that, since the Leveson inquiry started, he had been “shocked” to learn that misconduct in the newspaper industry was “a lot more widespread than I initially thought”.
Commenting on the role played by News International, he said: “I think it’s greatly to their credit that New Corporation are cooperating fully [with the police investigation]. I wish they had done so a bit earlier.”
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