Hunt warns against MPs' move for statutory press regulation

The current chairman of the Press Complaints Commission gave an impassioned warning against statutory regulation of the press at the Leveson Inquiry yesterday.

“There is already statute,” said Lord Hunt. “What is missing is a statutory regulator, which is what I’d regard as infringement on freedom of press.”

Lord Hunt said Britain’s “much envied” press freedom was the country’s “greatest asset”.

“The road to parliamentary hell is paved with good intentions”, he added, telling the Inquiry that there were “very strong views” in parliament that there should be tougher limits on the power of the press.

He said the Inquiry was a “tremendous opportunity” for the press to come forward with the type of system that Sir David Calcutt proposed in the early 1990s. “But not by statute,” Hunt emphasised.

He also held the view that the PCC was not a regulator, arguing that it had been “unfairly criticised for failing to exercise powers it never had in the first place”.

He said there was an urgent need for a new body and that the Inquiry was a key factor in there being “wide consensus for radical reform”. He argued that a new regulator should have two arms — one for handling complaints and mediation, and the other for auditing and enforcing standards.

Hunt also revealed that Northern and Shell boss Richard Desmond, who withdrew from the PCC last year, has agreed to sign up to his newly proposed press regulator. Hunt repeated that there was a “real appetite” for change and proposed a five-year rolling contract for publishers to sign up to.

Earlier today, serving PCC commissioner Lord Grade said he did not believe that statutory regulation would have a chilling effect on investigative journalism, which he said was “alive and well” in broadcasting despite being “heavily regulated”.

Yet he took issue with statutory regulation raising the prospect of judicial review and a slower complaints process, and had concerns over the powers of a statutory body to intervene with newspapers prior to publication.

Grade said a new, improved regulator should have “visible, painful, tangible powers of sanction”, and that statutory recognition of a body that is  independent of politicians and proprietors seemed to be a “very important way forward”.

He added that current PCC staff were “underpaid, overworked, overstretched”,  and that the body barely had enough resources to do more than be a “complaints resolution vehicle”.

The Inquiry continues today, with evidence from Ofcom, the Advertising Standards Agency and PressBoF.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson