Jowell facing calls to give Ofcom power to fine press

LibDems clash with Jowell over Ofcom aimed at speeding up PCC reform

Media Secretary Tessa Jowell is facing a demand to empower Ofcom to impose fines of up to £500,000 on newspapers which break the Editors’ Code of Practice.

Liberal Democrat peers this week moved to force a showdown with the Government in a bid to apply pressure on Press Complaints Commission chairman Sir Christopher Meyer to go ahead with reforms. The Editors’ Code underpins the work of the commission.

Jowell and Meyer already face a recommendation from the all-party Commons media select committee for the PCC to institute fines, a sanction the commission has hitherto opposed.

But the committee, headed by Labour MP Gerald Kaufman, rejected arguments for the new broadcasting regulator Ofcom to be given a supervisory role over the PCC.

Lord McNally, the LibDem deputy leader in the Lords, has tabled an amendment to the communications bill giving Ofcom draconian powers of intervention. These would entrust Ofcom with a duty to make such arrangements as it thinks fit to provide for the enforcement of the Code of Practice by the PCC.

In particular, Ofcom would be empowered to issue directions to the PCC and impose penalties of any sum not exceeding £500,000 as it judges appropriate and “proportionate to the breach of the code”.

Jowell and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt have vowed to whip Labour peers into the lobbies to reject any move to bring the PCC under Ofcom.

Instead they are looking to Meyer to strengthen self-regulation and he has already outlined a number of reforms which the Government welcomes.

But the LibDem move guarantees a debate in which the PCC and the newspaper industry would be put on trial by peers critical of the commission.

The joint committee of MPs and peers, headed by Lord Puttnam, which examined the draft bill, itself recommended that the PCC should seek accreditation from Ofcom.

That proposal was vetoed by the Government, and Lord Currie of Marylebone, Ofcom’s chairman, has also said he is not seeking any supervisory role over the press.

Lord McNally, who is also the LibDems media spokesman in the Lords, told Press Gazette: “There should be a link between Ofcom and the PCC. It is disappointing the media select committee ducked it.”

He acknowledged that Meyer had “made a good start” in outlining a programme of reform. But he said: “The PCC has discovered an appetite for reforming itself while it is under the spotlight of the Kaufman committee and the communications bill. But there is no guarantee this enthusiasm will not wane immediately the bill is out of the way.”

By David Rose

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