Upon being appointed chairman of the Press Complaints Commission last October, Lord David Hunt, announced that he was undertaking a major overhual of the organisation which would effectively see it replaced.
This was against a backdrop of widespread criticism of the “toothless” PCC in the wake of the phone hacking scandal and outcry over press intrusion, with many claiming self-regulation had failed.
Now Lord Hunt of the Wirral is ready to outline a new body, which goes beyond simple mediation of complaints, delving into press standards, enforcement of the Editors’ Code of Conduct as well as a beefed-up complaints arm.
He has won the backing of Lord Justice Leveson who told him to “press on” with his reforms.
What is most striking is that the Tory peer also seems to have the support of newspaper proprietors and editors to the extent that they are willing to enter a contract with the new organisation to oblige them to comply with its decisions.
This could be taken by critics as a sign that the new body, which could be called the Press Standards Authority, will be no more effective than is predecessor.
Alternatively, it could be the case that the media knows that if regulation is not effective, then laws will be introduced.
In drawing up his reforms Lord Hunt has met with editors and owners, campaign groups like Hacked Off and victims of press intrusion including Chris Jeffries, the retired Bristol schoolteacher wrongly linked to the Joanne Yates murder, Gerry and Kate McCann and Max Moseley.
He has also consulted the regional press, which although not involved in the phone hacking scandal, will be affected by new regulation.
His visit to the Birmingham Post’s Fort Dunlop office was part of this consultation, and he was as interested in the views of reporters on the shop floor as editors.
He recognises that the regional press is more a part of the community and is more reliant on public trust and confidence than the nationals.
“When I was an MP on the Wirral I would speak to the political correspondent for the Liverpool Daily Post. He knew what was going on and would expect me, as local MP, to do something about it.”
From the outset Lord Hunt has made it clear he is against any form of political or legal control, believing that the existing laws on corruption, bribery, defamation, contempt of court and privacy are more than adequate if enforced.
But he realises that he faces a tall order convincing others of this. “It’s a considerable challenge but I believe in the freedom of the press, freedom of expression and freedom of speech,” he said.
“It is clear that the last thing we want is statutory regulation. We don’t want politicians controlling the media.
“I have found a way through the present situation. It will have teeth.”
This includes the power to call witnesses, investigate complaints and bind media to its decisions.
His proposal creates two arms, one dealing with complaints and mediation and a second to look at standards and compliance.
Each organisation should have a person responsible for auditing and ensuring the compliance with the Editors’ Code.
“This new system will be legally underpinned through a system of enforceable commercial contracts. Each publisher signs a contract with the regulator, which would be enforceable through civil law,” he explained, “The regulator can sue the publisher for any contractural breaches.
“This proposed model would help restore the good reputation of a free and responsible press. It would maintain the valuable mediation function that the PCC provides, while responding to the popular criticism that the body lacks teeth.”
The new model has been outlined to editors and owners.
Lord Hunt said: “I was surprised that they agreed, especially as the industry is diverse representing difference of opinion.”
He believes they took to it because it is flexible, not unnecessarily bureaucratic and meets the demand for a proper system of regulation.
“Everyone knows there must be a framework and a new robust system of regulation. The people of Birmingham deserve a press which demonstrates it takes its responsibilities seriously and adheres to professional standards.”