PCC funder backs fines

The chairman of the body that funds the Press Complaints Commission told the Leveson Inquiry today that the News of the World phone hacking scandal has convinced him of the regulator’s need to impose fines.

Lord Black, chairman of the Press Standards Board of Finance (PressBoF), revealed that he had been opposed to the imposition of fines, arguing that they would not have strengthened the PCC, but admitted the phone hacking scandal had made him change his mind.

“I certainly now believe that some form of fining system would be appropriate,” he said, citing the scandal that led to the closure of the News of the World as “the most obvious example of why urgent reform of the system is needed.”

Black said there was a “very real” appetite for change from the industry and argued that there needed to be “radical proposals” for changes to self-regulation in order to thwart a threat of statutory regulation.

Black’s testimony follows Lord Hunt’s call yesterday for a new regulator that had increased powers to investigate, as well as audit and enforce standards. Hunt told the Inquiry there was a “wide consensus for radical reform” in the industry.

Ofcom CEO Ed Richards and Chair Colette Bowe also gave evidence today. The pair defended the broadcast regulator, which is underpinned by statute and whose chief executive is chosen by the Culture Secretary, as being able to maintain its independence. Bowe emphasised the regulator is accountable to Parliament — not the government — and Richards stressed that independence was “probably the most prized characteristic of the entire organisation.”

Asked by counsel Carine Patry-Hoskins if Ofcom’s independence would be stronger were its board not selected by the government, Bowe said it would not in practical terms. She added that a better model had not been proposed, and that well-informed parliamentary committee served to hold Ofcom to account.

Richards described Ofcom as a “post-broadcast regulator” that does not attempt to intervene with broadcasts in advance of being aired. He said he pre-broadcast intervention was “very difficult territory, which takes you potentially takes you into the area of censorship and suppression.”

Richards also argued that there was “no reason” why financial penalties should have a chilling effect on investigative journalism, and that there were “plenty of examples” of broadcast journalism that have been controversial and produced within the Ofcom code.

Richards added that Ofcom’s own investigatory powers, namely the ability to require data from broadcasters, were a “key tool” and crucial to the regulator doing its job effectively. He cited the sanctions levied as a result of the 2007 phone-in scandal — during which Ofcom fined GMTV a record £2 million for having repeatedly allowed viewers to enter phone-in competitions after lines had closed — as an “effective deterrent”.

Richards admitted that digital innovations did present challenges for broadcasters, but said any attempt to regulate the internet was a “fool’s errand”.

The Inquiry continues tomorrow.

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