The Guardian has come under attack from academics and press reform group Hacked Off over its opposition to statutory regulation of the press.
In an editorial the paper warned that introducing statute risked a return to “something which was abolished in the 17th century and which has no place in a free society”.
The paper’s stance has since come in for criticism in a letter sent to the paper signed by a group of 20 academics, including professors from the University of Westminster and Cardiff University.
In its editorial The Guardian said there were already “plenty of laws affecting journalists in this country”, and voiced qualified support for the “PCC2” model of stricter self-regulation put forward by Pressbof chairman Lord Black and PCC chairman Lord Hunt.
It urged Lord Justice Leveson – who is due to publish his report into the ethics, culture and practices of the UK press later this month – to build on the “real progress made by Lord Black in outlining a new system of regulation which enjoys widespread support across the press”.
The academics dismiss the Hunt-Black plan as “little more than a reinvention of the same system of self-regulation which has failed the public and journalism for the last 60 years”.
They said: “Were it not for the Guardian's commitment to courageous and outstanding investigative journalism – in the teeth of bitter resistance by the PCC and its controlling press interests – we would never have discovered the true scale of abuse and corruption in parts of the press.
“This is surely the moment to push for a genuinely independent regulator, founded in law, which could command real public trust and reinvigorate public interest journalism.
“For the Guardian meekly to surrender this opportunity in favour of yet more self-regulation is a sad finale to its own exemplary journalism.”
Hacked Off, which is leading calls for statutory underpinning, accused The Guardian of “scaremongering” in its editorial last week.
“When the history of the phone-hacking scandal is written, journalists at The Guardian will be heroes,” it said.
“The persistence they showed – in particular Nick Davies and Alan Rusbridger – in pursuing and then exposing the culture of criminality in other parts of the press stands as a model of committed, fearless investigative journalism in the public interest.
“Which makes it all the more worrying that an editorial in the paper should, even in a nuanced fashion, give credibility to the proposals of Lord Hunt of the now-defunct PCC and Lord Black of the Telegraph Group for another round of press self-regulation.”
It added: “It is not at all clear why the support which the proposals enjoy among the very people who drafted them – the proprietors and the editors – is an opinion worth much weight.
“It is akin to the prisoner in the dock being asked which form of punishment they would favour; and whether they would perhaps prefer to impose it on themselves, rather than go through the inconvenience of the justice system.”
It went on to claim: “So predictions of a dark future in a totalitarian Britain are the final plank of the argument which implies that even after the disgraceful conduct uncovered by Leveson, the repeated breaches of public trust, the decades of plain abuse of power, the cruelty inflicted on blameless people, that the newspapers can nonetheless still be trusted to sit as judge and jury in a court of their choosing.
“We expect these arguments from the Daily Mail and News International. How surprising is it that they now appear in the Guardian, 89% of whose readers are in favour of a truly independent regulator, their independence guaranteed by law?”
The Guardian said its position on regulation remains unchanged since the hacking scandal first broke: “We believe in independent regulation, both from politicians and the press itself. We do believe in a contract system – not the use of statute – to secure participation.
“But we also believe in an arbitral arm which incentivises the regulated to pursue high standards and penalises anyone who walks away. We believe that the regulator must have real investigatory powers and sanctions. And, above all, we believe in the importance of plurality.”