The government is ready to use legislation to enforce effective regulation of the press if the industry fails to set up a genuinely tough and independent self-regulatory body, as set out in last week’s Leveson Report, Culture Secretary Maria Miller warned yesterday.
Prime Minister David Cameron last week voiced “serious concerns and misgivings” about Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendation of legislative underpinning for a new regulator but, addressing MPs yesterday, Ms Miller made clear it had not been ruled out as a last resort.
The Culture Secretary was speaking in a House of Commons debate ahead of tomorrow’s Downing Street summit with newspaper editors, at which she expects to hear what progress the industry has made on its blueprint for a replacement for the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).
Meanwhile, an online petition launched by campaigners Hacked Off, calling for the full implementation of Leveson’s recommendations – including statutory underpinning – had attracted almost 135,000 signatures by yesterday afternoon.
Ms Miller told MPs “the status quo is not an option” following Lord Leveson’s account of “outrageous” intrusion by elements of the press which the PCC failed to prevent.
She warned: “The Prime Minister is clear – we will see change. That change can either come with the support of the press or – if we are given no option – without it. If the industry doesn’t respond, the government will.”
She confirmed that the action envisaged by ministers “would include legislation” if industry proposals fall short of Lord Leveson’s principles that a new regulator must be truly independent and able to impose big fines on newspapers.
“We will not accept a puppet show with the same people pulling the same strings,” she told MPs.
Ms Miller’s comments came after talks with Labour culture spokeswoman Harriet Harman and Liberal Democrat Lord Wallace, whose leaders have both voiced support for legislation.
Labour sources characterised the talks, which lasted about 30 minutes, as “constructive” and said leader Ed Miliband still hoped to find a consensus.
In her remarks to the Commons, Ms Miller too called for consensus, telling MPs she hoped a common approach could be found without the need for a vote in parliament.
But there was little sign of agreement in the debate, in which Ms Harman said self-regulation had repeatedly failed to prevent unwarranted intrusion by the press. The Labour deputy leader said: “We need statute because the current system of self-regulation has failed year after year for 70 years and despite seven major reports.”
Officials at the Culture Department are drawing up a draft bill to enact Lord Leveson’s recommendations in full.
But senior sources have made clear that ministers expect this to provide confirmation of Mr Cameron’s concerns about the complexity and potential negative consequences of any attempt to extend statutory controls over the press.
Ms Miller voiced concern that any legislation could be amended by future administrations to muzzle the press, and warned it would harm the UK’s reputation as an advocate of free speech.