Jowell will fight new threat to independence of PCC

Jowell: Labour MPs and peers will be whipped in to defeat LibDem threat

Media Secretary Tessa Jowell has vowed to defeat a new Parliamentary threat to introduce state regulation of newspapers through the back door.

Liberal Democrat broadcasting spokesman Lord McNally confirmed to Press Gazette this week that his party would press ahead with moves to bring the Press Complaints Commission under the supervision of new media regulator Ofcom.

If that succeeded it would mean the PCC, under its new chairman Sir Christopher Meyer, would have to seek accreditation from Ofcom and subject its policy objectives, independence and accountability to the regulator’s assessment.

Should Ofcom withdraw accreditation, it could open the door for statutory regulation to be imposed.

But the Secretary of State moved again to reassure editors that they would not face censorship by making it clear that Labour MPs and peers will be whipped into the division lobby to defeat the amendment the LibDems intend tabling to the communications bill.

"The LibDems have attached their flag to this mast and they will no doubt continue it to a vote in the Commons and Lords," she said in an exclusive interview. But she added: "This not a position the Government supports."

Lord McNally first disclosed the new threat to self-regulation in a speech to the LibDems’ Brighton conference. As the communications bill began its committee stage on Tuesday, he said the party would put down an amendment, either in the Commons or the Lords.

The LibDem move will further concern editors, who have launched a campaign to safeguard press freedom amid fears it will be endangered by Ofcom which, under the bill, will have a role in advising ministers on newspaper mergers.

Jowell acknowledged the concerns of editors. "What we are seeing is a campaign by editors in newspaper leaders of tweaking the tails of those who might support such an amendment. It is not Government policy."

However, she gave a cautious reply when asked whether she was satisified with self-regulation by the PCC.

"Politicians are probably the worst people to ask that question," she said. "I don’t think the PCC exists principally to protect people like me. I think it exists, and therefore must be judged, by its effectiveness in protecting people who are not in the public eye and showing, by its actions, that the PCC code is taken seriously and the way it operates is subject to constant scrutiny and updated were necessary.

"I wouldn’t expect you to come to a Secretary of State and say: ‘Are you wholly satisfied with the PCC?’ and for the Secretary of State to say: ‘Yes.’ But that is not the point. The point is we have a free press which in this country covers a wide spectrum of opinion."

Jowell insisted there were distinctions between news broadcast on radio and television and news in newspapers. "What people know is that the news they listen to and watch on TV is impartial and the broadcasting of news is regulated in a way to make it impartial. Newspapers are not licensed and are subject to economic regulation and not content regulation.

"That means the public have a different relationship with newspapers they read and the radio and TV they watch and listen to. When they buy their newspaper in the morning, they know they are buying opinions.

"They don’t expect their newspapers, or even want them, to be impartial. I think that is a very important distinction that everybody needs to understand."

By David Rose

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