The main press owners are proposing to lock publishers into a new system of press regulation by making membership a condition of access to press cards, Press Association copy and even major advertising.
Chairman of Presbof Lord Black yesterday put forward to the Leveson Inquiry the response of press owners to the hacking scandal.
He made it clear that by making such major changes to the current system of self regulation owners hope to stave off a solution being imposed from the outside by Lord Justice Levson and the Government.
He said: "Self regulatoin is likely to be imperfect. Yet it is vital to the maintenance of a free press, reflecting the special role that the unlicensed media - in print and online - have in democracy."
The comprehensive plan for a new regulator was formulated out of guidelines created by Press Complaints Commission chairman Lord Hunt after he chaired a private meeting of editors and other industry figures held at Telegraph Media Group last December. The detailed plan for the new regulate has been backed up by extensive legal documenation commissioned by Presbof.
Lord Justice Leveson has indicated that he wants the industry to come up with its own solutions to the issues raised by the hacking scandal and other press excesses highlighted by his inquiry.
It now remains to be seen whether the press owners' solution will be enough or whether Leveson will come up with his own plan when he issues his findings in October.
Presbof is the body which currently funds the PCC and represents the trade bodies for press owners: The Newspaper Publishers Association, the Newspaper Society, the Professional Publishers Association and the Scottish Newspaper Society.
It proposes keeping the current complaints handling system of the PCC and the Editors' Code. The most serious punishment for newspapers which breach the code will remain a critical adjudication, rather than a fine.
But in cases of extreme wrongdoing – such as phone-hacking, coverage of the McCanns and the Chris Jefferies case – it will be able to set up an investigation team comprising one industry representative (not a serving editor) and two non-industry figures.
In these cases the board of the new regulator will have the power to issue fines of up to £1m.
Presbof proposes retaining control of the Editors' Code Committee, which draws up the Editors' Code, but including five public members on the 13-person panel for the first time.
It proposes that the Trust Board, which will run the new regulator, will comprise two public members, two industry members and an independent chairman.
The central aim of the new regulator will be 'to promote and uphold the highest professional standards of journalism".
Members of the public would be given a majority on the adjudication panel which judges complaints. It would comprise seven public members, five editors appointed by the owners and the chairman of the regulator.
Under the plans publishers will be required to submit an annual ethical audit to the regulator. Where publications have breached the code, or the law, they will be expected to account for their actions and explain how they have put matters right.
One of the biggest problems facing the PCC has been its inability to compel publishers to take part in the system – as highlighted by Express publisher Northern and Shell's refusal to participate.
Under the Presbof proposals, publishers will be locked into the regulator by signing five-year contracts and by the creation of other major incentives:
- It is proposed that were journalists are employed by a newspaper or magazine they will only receive a press card where their publisher has signed up to the regulator.
- It is also proposed the Press Association may only provide its copy to publications that have signed up with the regulator. Presbof said in its statement: 'Because of the commercial pressures on newspapers it is difficult to see how some publications could exist without such copy."
- Lord Hunt is proposing that a 'kite-mark'system would be introduced for publications which have signed up to the regulator to display.
- And the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers is currently investigating whether 'major advertisers should require membership as a condition of advertising in news publications, including on blogs". This could also extend to government advertising.
It is proposed that the new system will be funded in the same way as the PCC with national publishers bearing 54 per cent of the costs, regional and Scottish ones 39 per cent and magazine publishers 7 per cent.
The overall cost is estimated at £2.25m a year versus the £1.95m cost of funding the PCC.
The Newspaper Publishers Association is to stump an additional £100,000 to fund the investigations arm. But investigations would ultimately be self-funding under the 'polluter pays'principle.