Hewitt said she would defend self-regulation by the PCC “vigoursly”
Trade and industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt has strongly rebutted a whispering campaign by editors that she favours the state regulation of newspapers.
In an interview with Press Gazette, Hewitt accused newspaper lobbyists of trying to cause a split between herself and Media Secretary Tessa Jowell, with whom she shares responsibility for the media in Parliament.
The truth, she said, was that they both favoured the newspaper industry regulating itself, and would resist attempts in Parliament to bring the Press Complaints Commission under the supervision of new media regulator Ofcom.
Hewitt spoke out as MPs ended their four-month scrutiny of the communications bill, with Liberal Democrat peers still threatening to table an amendment requiring the PCC to be licensed by Ofcom, which could open the door for statutory regulation.
Although Jowell has defended press freedom on several occasions, speculation persists that her Cabinet colleague – a former Labour Party communications director under Neil Kinnock – is less sympathetic to self-regulation.
Hewitt denied the charge when Press Gazette put it to her and said she had heard of the rumour. “I am well aware of the fact that they are trying to portray me as bad cop in a double act,” she said. “That is nonsense. We [Jowell and herself] have worked closely together.
“This is a rather crude attempt by some of the newspaper lobbyists to divide us. Tessa and I both take the same view on the position of newspapers. We are absolutely committed to self-regulation through the PCC. If we get a proposal in the House of Lords to put the PCC on a statutory footing, we will defend self-regulation by the PCC very vigorously.”
But the minister finally crushed newspaper industry hopes that the government would abandon its controversial plan to give Ofcom an advisory role in newspaper mergers.
Although the bill will no longer require newspaper mergers to be approved by the Secretary of State – like other mergers, they will be subject to competition law – she will retain the power to order a wider investigation by the Competition Commission in any merger where exceptional public interest is judged to be involved.
This will happen in cases that involve the public interest in accurate presentation of the news, free expression of opinion and plurality of views in the press.
Ofcom’s controversial role would be to advise the Secretary of State and even carry out its own investigations. As Ofcom’s other role will be to act as broadcast regulator, editors and publishers are concerned that it will be tempted into increasing involvement in newspapers, threatening press freedom and weakening self-regulation.
Hewitt said she believed editors’ concerns were unfounded because they misunderstood the role envisaged for Ofcom.
“Decisions on newspaper mergers will continue to be made by ministers,” she said. “Ofcom’s only role will be to give open and honest advice to help us make those decisions. Ofcom will not be making a decision and neither will Ofcom have any role in content regulation or the licensing of newspapers.
“What we have done in the bill is to simplify and deregulate the regime by getting rid of criminal sanctions. We will continue to ensure the public interest can be taken into account when a newspaper title changes hands. Public interest has a need for accurate presentation of views and free expression of opinion in newspapers, along with a need for plurality of views, in both national and regional newspapers.”
By David Rose