THE chairman of the Press Complaints Commission said he eagerly awaits the Leveson report into press standards and a new regulatory body “must not only be the scourge of bad practices” but also the “true and loyal friend of good journalism”.
Addressing the annual conference of the Society of Editors, Lord Hunt said his own proposals for a new system of self regulation would embrace the “solemn, timeless, constitutionally vital role the press uniquely has”.
Lord Hunt, a former MP who served as a Cabinet minister under Baroness Thatcher and Sir John Major, said the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) had not been able to keep up with developments in the media since it was set up 21 years ago, when it “did what it said on the tin”.
He added: “A real press regulator is needed - and, in the terms in which I understand the word, the PCC has never really been a regulator at all. Its powers and remit are simply too informal and too limited.”
Speaking of his own proposals, Lord Hunt said it would be a “radically different beast” to the existing PCC.
And he said he was eager to learn what Lord Justice Leveson has made of his suggestions.
He added: “Nothing would make me happier than to see this proposal adopted yet again, in just a matter of weeks, this time as the Leveson Plan.
“The new regulator must not only be the scourge of bad practices. It must be the true and loyal friend of good journalism which, whilst it may not always be pretty, has at its heart, as its foundation stone, the public interest.
“Good, decent journalists must have nothing to fear from the system I propose.”
Lord Hunt suggested that after the report has been published a conference could be held bringing together representatives of the press, campaigning groups and those involved in regulatory reform, adding that he would be happy to arrange such an event.
He said it was wrong to speculate on the report, adding: “That is all it is, however - speculation.
“It is patently absurd for campaigning groups to be threatening politicians with every kind of retribution, should they fail to enact reforms which are, as yet, unknown and unknowable.
“I for one am certainly not spoiling for a fight with Sir Brian Leveson. I am champing at the bit and awaiting my instructions.”
Lord Hunt quoted a meeting of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in 2007, the last occasion it considered press regulation, when it unanimously decided against statutory regulation, describing it as a “hallmark of authoritarianism” which “risks undermining democracy”.
He said the report gave a “meaningful, effective definition” of self regulation.
Paraphrasing it, he went on: “In other words, the key to effective self-regulation is here, in this room - it is all of you, and the manner in which you conduct yourselves, professionally.”
He said he believed the new body should satisfy the Hampton principles of good regulation - proportionality, accountability, consistency, transparency and targeting. But he went on to say that he would also add his own sixth principle - independence.
Lord Hunt also spoke of the importance of freedom of expression, an “incredibly precious and a privilege to be honoured and cherished, and exercised with judgment”.
And he said that critics of self-regulation of the press were wrong in saying that it had failed as it has never been tried.
The Conservative peer, who became PCC chairman in October last year, said he enjoyed attending events where journalism was celebrated.
He told the editors from national and regional newspapers, who were gathered for the event in Belfast: “What a relief it is, to be reminded of those journalists who have excelled at their task of informing the public, exposing wrong-doing or campaigning for justice.”
And he made reference to journalists who have made the “ultimate sacrifice” such as Marie Colvin, who was killed while reporting in Syria earlier this year.
“We must never allow the litany of bad practice that was allowed to dominate the Leveson Inquiry to overshadow or jeopardise all that is good,” he added.
Lord Hunt said said the most important contract in the system he proposes, “is not the one between each publisher and the regulator.
“It is the contract between the industry and the people of the United Kingdom: a solemn undertaking to eradicate the unsavoury, unethical and, often, illegal practices that have defiled and diminished journalism; to disown those over-aggressive paparazzi who have no regard for the law, human dignity or even physical safety, and blight the lives of innocent people.
“But an undertaking, too, to recognise and embrace once again the solemn, timeless, constitutionally vital role the press uniquely has, of leaving no stone unturned in its determination to uncover shady business practices; dodgy deals; hypocrisy and double standards in public life; and corruption of every kind.
“That is what public interest journalism has always been about.”
Lord Justice Leveson is expected to publish the findings of his inquiry in the next few weeks.