Paul Dacre says press ombudsman could impose fines

Associated Newspapers editor-in-chief Paul Dacre today said that a new press ombudsman could be created with the power to impose fines on publishers in extreme cases.

He also announced the creation of a new page two corrections column in all his papers during a speech to a Leveson Inquiry seminar in London this morning in which he also launched a robust defence of self regulation and the freedom of the popular press.

Whilst condemning the illegal hacking of mobile phones that has prompted the Leveson Inquiry, Dacre also called for a sense of proportion.

“Britain’s cities weren’t looted as a result. No-one died. The banks didn’t collapse because of the News of the World. Elected politicians continued to steal from the people they were paid to represent.

“The nation didn’t go to war. Yet the response has been a judicial inquiry with greater powers than those possessed by the public inquiries into the Iraq war. An Inquiry, incidentally, that includes a panel of experts who – while honourable distinguished people – don’t have the faintest clue how mass-selling newspapers operate…

“Am I alone in detecting the rank smells of hypocrisy and revenge in the political class’s current moral indignation over a British press that dared to expose their greed and corruption – the same political class, incidentally, that, until a few weeks ago, had spent years indulging in sickening genuflection to the Murdoch press.”

Decent journalists

Dacre spoke up for the “thousands of decent journalists” in Britain, especially those working in the regional press “for a pittance”, who “passionately believe that their papers give voice to the voiceless and expose the misdeeds of the rich, the powerful and the pompous”.

And he warned that the economic background of the Inquiry was a newspaper industry in a “sick financial state” – with several quality newspapers losing “awsome amounts of money” and local newspapers facing “the severest challenges”.

He said: “This diminishes our democracy. Courts go uncovered. Councils aren’t held to account. And the corrupt go unchallenged. That is a democratic deficit that is in itself worthy of an inquiry.”

Dacre said it would be a disaster if a revamped Press Complaints Commission were given the power to impose fines: “were that to happen, lawyers would inevitably be used by newspapers resulting in the end of quick and free PCC justice”.

But he said that legal remedies may be needed to compel newspaper publishers to participate in self regulation.

On the issue of corrections, Dacre said they needed more prominence and revealed that as of next week the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and Metro will have a corrections and clarifications column on page two.

Dacre suggested that a new industry ombudsman could be created with the power to investigate press scandals.

“The ombudsman could also have the power to summon journalists and editors to give evidence, to name offenders and, if necessary – in the cases of the most extreme malfeasance – to impose fines. On the principle of ‘polluter pays’ offending media groups could, within reason, be forced to carry the costs of any investigation affecting their newspapers.”

Dacre saved his final salvo for what he sees as the liberal critics of self regulation.

He said: “Any future reforms must take into consideration the needs and commercial realities of all newspapers, the provincial press, mass-selling red tops, as well as loss-making broadsheets.

“Indeed, we should not be blind to the irony that the most virulent criticism of self-regulation comes from papers that lose eye-watering amounts of money and which are subsidised either by trusts or Russian billionaires. I do not deprecate these papers. They are brilliant. But they are also, I would suggest, freed from the compulsion to connect with enough readers to be financially viable and the constraints of having to operate in the real world.”

Hampstead liberal

Dacre said that Britain’s “liberal class…by and large hate the popular press” and added: “My worry is that this liberal hatred of mass selling papers has transmogrified into a hatred of self-regulation itself and I would ask the Inquiry to be aware of this bias.”

“The Hampstead liberal with his gilded lifestyle understandably enjoys the Guardian – a paper that deals with serious issues. But does he or a judge have any right to deny someone who works ten hours a day in a Sunderland call centre and lives for football, the right to buy a paper that reveals the sexual peccadilloes of one of his team’s millionaire married players – a player who uses his celebrity to sell products to him and his children.”

Saying that self regulation is at the heart of a free press, Dacre said: “That this why I profoundly regret that a Prime Minister – who had become too close to News International in general and Andy Coulson and Rebekah Wade in particular – in a pretty cynical act of political expediency has prejudiced the outcome of this inquiry by declaring that the PCC, an institution he’d been committed to only a few weeks previously, was a ‘failed’ body.”

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