Jowell 'no' to calls for press fines

Tabloid editors giving evidence to MPs earlier this year

Fears that fines could result in the closure of smaller newspapers led Media Secretary Tessa Jowell this week to reject a demand that editors be hit with financial penalties when they breach the industry’s Code of Practice.

Instead, Jowell backed self-regulation by the industry by ruling out a privacy law and even rejected a call by the Commons media select committee for the Press Complaints Commission to publish a league table of the worst offenders.

The committee, chaired by Labour MP Gerald Kaufman, had suggested the PCC itself should hand out fines. But Jowell told Parliament: “What might be a modest compensatory payment by a national paper would be punitive to very many smaller publications. “Breaches of the code are very serious but it is not for the PCC to administer a self-regulatory scheme which might result in the closure of a newspaper.”

The committee put forward the idea of fines following their inquiry into media intrusion. The MPs suggested “a fixed scale of compensatory awards” should be agreed within the newspaper industry and invoked when there were serious infringements of the code.

In rejecting the plan, Jowell also heeded warnings that some newspapers, particularly some small local papers, might refuse to take part, undermining the work of the PCC under its chairman Sir Christopher Meyer.

She rejected the committee’s call for the PCC to publish in its annual report a league table showing which papers had the most complaints. She pointed out that the information was already available on the PCC website.

But while backing the commission, the Secretary of State again served notice on Meyer that she looked to the industry to put its own house in order. In particular, she welcomed plans to increase the PCC’s lay membership.

She also backed one recommendation from the MPs for the PCC, broadcasters and new super-regulator Ofcom to crack down on “media scrums”.

“Media scrums are more to do with intimidation and potential unfairness than with privacy,” she said. “This is a matter in which closer co-operation between the regulators of the different media would be in the public interest.”

In her own evidence to the committee, Jowell said the Government was opposed to a privacy law. In her response to the committee’s report she indicated the Government’s position was unchanged.

“The Government strongly believes that a free press is vital to the health of our democracy. There should be no laws that specifically seek to restrict that freedom, and Government should not seek to intervene in any way in what a newspaper or magazine chooses to publish.”

By David Rose

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