National editors say proposed Hunt-Black press regulator needs to be more independent

The editors of The Times, Financial Times, Guardian and Independent have all voiced criticism of the Hunt-Black plan for self regulation of the press.

In an editorial today, Times editor James Harding said that it was time to “scrap self-regulation”. Meanwhile, the editors of the FT, Guardian, Independent and Evening Standard are understood to have declined to sign a letter giving their backing to the current proposal for a new industry-run press regulator.

The plan put forward by Telegraph executive director Lord Black, and backed by PCC chairman Lord Hunt, calls for the creation of a new regulator with powers to fine and investigate overseen by a five-person board, with two members chosen by the industry who would have power of veto over the choice of chairman.

The Hunt-Black plan would see serving editors continue to sit on the complaints committee which would comprise five editors, seven members of the public and the chairman.

Today Harding said: “We need an independent, muscular regulator. It must be able to investigate and punish, ensure that people who have been wronged get prompt and prominent redress and safeguard free expression. This is to be run by the public, not editors or proprietors. And it should have the power to fine papers for wrongdoing.”

Rejecting the Hunt/Black model for the composition of the regulator's board, he said: ”The Lord Chief Justice should appoint someone, probably an experienced lawyer, and a panel of two others to oversee this regulator. This is to prevent backsliding, to stop the regulator falling into the clutches of the industry, to ensure no return to the 'smoke-filled rooms' of the past."

According to Harding the Hunt-Black plan goes “most of the way” towards the aim of providing an independent regulator – but his proposals represent a significant departure from the plan currently on the table.

Representing his solution as a third way, Harding also makes a robust argument against any move toward statutory involvement in the creation of a new press regulator.

He said that asking Parliament to pass a new law on press regulation would “hand politicians moral responsibility for the press... The public will look to Parliament to monitor the regulation of newspapers, politicians will have a lever of power over journalists and editors will find themselves in constant negotiations with the prime minister over the content and conduct of newspapers.”

Such a law would, in effect, mean a return to the licensing of newspapers – which was scrapped in 1694. He said: “If the press is to serve the people, Parliament should not seek to be its master.”

Meanwhile, The Guardian reports that the FT, the Guardian and the Lebedev-owned Independent and Standard titles have declined to sign up to a letter circulated by Lords Hunt and Black which states that the new model for newspaper regulation proposed by the industry “will address the criticisms made at the inquiry, and put the interests of the public at the centre of everything it does".

The three are apparently concerned that the new regulator will not be properly independent but in effect continue to be controlled by a handful of powerful publishers through the Industry Finance Board, the successor body to the Press Standards Board of Finance which is currently chaired by Telegraph executive director Lord Black.

The Independent said in a leader today that where it, the Standard, Guardian and FT differ from other nationals is that "we do not feel the Black/Hunt model is sufficiently independent. Time and again, it comes up in criticism of the existing arrangement that the PCC is too linked to its newspaper members, that the body is not only self-regulating but self-serving.

"For that distrust to be removed, the new regulator must be seen to be independent – that means no one serving on it should be appointed by those organisations that fund it. The chairman should not have strong ties to a member group and should be selected under the Nolan rules enshrining the independence of top public appointments. Neither, in the interests of achieving true independence, will the current system of the regulator's funding being overseen by a separate body comprised of representatives from the newspaper groups be allowed to continue."

MORE ON THIS STORY : 

Sign up for our free weekly digital magazine, Press Gazette Journalism Weekly, and daily newsletter
To contact Press Gazette with a story call 0207 936 6433
or email pged@pressgazette.co.uk
To advertise, please call 0207 936 6764.