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December 3, 2012 10:42 pm
Maria Miller has warned that the Conservative party will rethink its opposition to new press laws as recommended by Lord Justice Leveson if media figures fail to set up a tough self-regulating body with appropriate speed.
The culture secretary’s remarks, in a Commons debate on the judge’s report, increase pressure on the industry before a meeting with media editors and proprietors in Downing Street on Tuesday. Although David Cameron and Ms Miller have emphasised their “serious concerns and misgivings” about Lord Justice Leveson’s suggestion last week that the new regulator should have some legislative underpinning, the culture secretary was clear that this option had not been ruled out.
Opening the debate, Mrs Miller told MPs that the Leveson report and preceding phone-hacking scandal marked a “dark moment in the history of the British press”. She added that although she believed new press laws could imperil press freedom, she knew that maintaining the status quo was “not an option’’.
“We will not accept a puppet show with the same people pulling the same strings,’’ she said.
In an apparent shift of stance since the report, Ms Miller said that if the press did not act fast to set up an independent and effective replacement to the Press Complaints Commission, ministers would have to take action, which “would include legislation”.
Ms Miller’s failure to back statutory regulation in the first instance has put her at odds with many Conservative backbenchers as well as with her Liberal Democrat coalition partners and the Labour party.
John Whittingdale, the Tory chairman of the cross-party culture committee, seemed to reverse his previous opposition to a new law by saying he now backed the Irish model on which Lord Justice Leveson based many of his recommendations.
“There is a massive difference between the law recognising the existence of a body and the law having power over that body,” Mr Whittingdale said.
Edward Garnier, the Tory former solicitor-general, also spoke against his own party’s position when he urged MPs to move away from the “hyperbole and exaggeration” about statutory regulation, and denounced the idea that Lord Justice Leveson was suggesting some sort of “Stalinist control of the press”.
Meanwhile Penny Mordaunt, a Tory backbencher, challenged Ms Miller to allow a free vote on how the report should be implemented. The culture secretary said she hoped there would not be a need for a vote, and that the parties would reach a consensus.
However, a cross-party meeting before the debate failed to make any headway on whether the new framework should be backed by law.
When her turn came to speak, Harriet Harman, shadow culture secretary, hailed Lord Justice Leveson’s solution of a self-regulator overseen by an independent body and backed by statute as “ingenious”.
“Each time there has been a new incarnation of self-regulation by the press, everybody starts with the best of intentions. Every time, because there is no oversight, standards have slipped and wrongdoing has occurred,” Ms Harman told MPs.
She added that having a statute to guarantee the effectiveness of this model was “not some incidental add-on . . . some optional extra”.
The department of culture, media and sport and the Labour party are each drawing up a draft bill to show what press laws would look like. Although the Tories hope to negotiate an agreement with their colleagues from other parties, Labour may try to force a vote on the issue, which would be almost certain to embarrass Mr Cameron.
PCC seeks to reinvent itself
Lord Hunt, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, says he has support from 120 publishers representing all 10 national newspapers and 2,000 publications for his version of self-regulation, writes Robert Budden.
He aims to publish a timetable for the formation of a self-regulatory body by the end of the weekend.
Senior newspaper editors claim broad support for a contract-based system which has powers to investigate breaches of a new code, can impose fines of up to £1m and includes an arbitration arm to resolve disputes – elements in the Leveson report.
Some newspapers remain wary of political bias. Lord Hunt’s plan is backed by Lord Black, another Conservative peer and a senior executive at the Telegraph Group. To combat this bias, two leading figures, including someone from the left of parliament, are being sought to join the body.
Some editors are also concerned over its independence and the role that its funding arm would have in selecting appointments to its board.
“We have moved on from talking about 300 years of press freedom,” said Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian. “We have to argue on a sophisticated level now. There are some substantial challenges.”
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