Suffolk: Press chief hails regional newspapers’ ‘Gold Standard’

The chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, Lord David Hunt, has visited the EADT and spoke to PAUL GEATER about the future of media regulation.

REGIONAL and local newspapers were held up as the “Gold Standard” for the media in this country in the wake of the Leveson inquiry.

That was the verdict of the man who is trying to draw up a new regulatory framework for the media in this country.

Former cabinet minister Lord David Hunt is the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission which has come under fire during the Leveson inquiry.

There have been claims that it is a “toothless tiger,” and Lord Hunt has said it should be replaced by a much tighter regulatory body.

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However on a visit to Archant Suffolk’s offices in Ipswich he said it was important that the press should continue with voluntary regulation – albeit focused on a much wider remit than simply dealing with complaints.

Lord Hunt visited Ipswich with former Northgate head Neil Watts, a member of the PCC, to meet senior editors from Archant to get the company’s views on bringing in a new regulatory structure.

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Speaking after the meeting, he said it was important to retain a voluntary regulatory system rather than going for legislation – and that regional and local newspapers had a vital role in that.

He said: “I’m a strong believer in self regulation, and because a small minority of the industry has been guilty of appalling behaviour doesn’t undermine the fact that the overwhelming majority of the press - particularly in the local and regional press – always observe the highest professional principles.”

He said the Society of Editors’ code of practice should be the basis of a new regulatory framework - the code is carried by all reporters working for Archant.

He said the evidence heard at the Leveson Inquiry included breaches of the criminal law which were not the subject of regulation – the correct way to deal with that was through a police investigation.

One newspaper (The Guardian) had led to the investigation which uncovered the phone hacking scandal over the last 18 months.

“My confidence is that the press will want to sign up to a more comprehensive system of regulation across the board.”

Lord Hunt was a Conservative MP in the Wirral for 21 years, and formed a very positive view of the local press through his work there.

He said: “I always found that my local and regional press set the gold standard - they were very critical of me often but that is all part of the function of local democracy. They quoted my opponent when he attacked me, but I never got upset about it.

“I have every respect for the local and regional press that set that gold standard, and it is the gold standard that I want to see extended to other areas of the press.”

Lord Hunt said that a voluntary regulatory system should take the form of a rolling five-year contract, which would mean that any news organisation would effectively have to give five years’ notice if they wanted to pull out of it.

Every news and magazine organisation had agreed to be sign up to the code. The long-term nature of the contract meant it would be difficult for any organisation to pull out – and if the government was concerned about organisations pulling out it would have enough time to bring forward legislation.

But Lord Hunt felt that was not likely to happen.

He said some industries, like banking, did have government regulators – but that had not prevented them from running into moral and ethical difficulties.

And he felt that organisations like the Newmarket-based Jockey Club proved that voluntary regulations could work.

The PCC agreed earlier this year to transfer its assets and staff to a new, more powerful, regulatory body. However it does not want to pre-empt Lord Leveson’s report and is waiting to hear his recommendations before the next stage is taken forward.

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