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Act now or face statutory regulation, editors warned

Ministers have warned they are  ready to use legislation to enforce effective regulation of the press if the industry fails to set up a genuinely independent self-regulatory body along the lines set out in last week’s Leveson Report.

Editors are due to meet Culture Secretary Maria Miller to set our plans for the creation of a new independent watchdog to replace the Press Complaints Commission.

But she warned last night that failure to make progress would force the government to introduce a statutory ‘back stop’ to the new system.

Prime Minister David Cameron last week voiced “serious concerns and misgivings” about Lord Justice Leveson’s call for legislative underpinning for a new regulator, but in a Commons debate last night Mrs Miller made clear it had not been ruled out as a last resort.

Mrs Miller told MPs “the status quo is not an option” following Leveson’s account of “outrageous” intrusion by elements of the press which the PCC failed to prevent.

She warned: “The Prime Minister is clear – we will see change. That change can either come with the support of the press or – if we are given no option – without it. Be in no doubt that if the industry doesn’t respond, the Government will.”

She confirmed that the action envisaged by ministers “would include legislation” if the industry’s proposals fall short of Leveson’s principles that a new regulator must be truly independent and able to impose big fines on newspapers which misbehave.

“We will not accept a puppet show with the same people pulling the same strings,” she told MPs.

Earlier PCC chairman Lord Hunt claimed that publishing groups representing 2,000 editors had signed up to his plan for a new self-regulatory body.

He said it was not necessary to back that up with legislation because newspapers could instead sign legally enforceable membership contracts.

However an online petition launched by campaigners Hacked Off, calling for the full implementation of Leveson’s recommendations – including statutory underpinning – has now attracted almost 135,000 signatures.

Mrs Miller’s comments came after cross-party talks with Labour culture spokeswoman Harriet Harman and Liberal Democrat Lord Wallace, whose leaders have both voiced support for legislation.

But there was little sign of agreement in the debate in which Ms Harman said self-regulation had repeatedly failed to prevent unwarranted intrusion by the press.

“We need statute because the current system of self-regulation has failed year after year for 70 years and despite seven major reports,” said the Labour deputy leader.

She suggested it would be mad to expect the press to get its house in order without oversight backed by law, telling MPs: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and and expecting a different outcome.”

Officials at Mrs Miller’s Culture Department are drawing up a draft Bill to enact Leveson’s recommendations in full.

But senior sources have made clear that ministers expect this to provide confirmation of Mr Cameron’s concerns about the complexity and potential negative consequences of any attempt to extend statutory controls over the press.

Downing Street today dismissed suggestions that the Culture Department Bill would be deliberately drafted to maximise the potential obstacles to legislation.

“We are approaching these talks in good faith and we will draft the legislation accordingly,” said the PM’s official spokesman.

“The Prime Minister’s view – which he set out in the House of Commons – is that it is likely that legislation will be quite complicated in practice. But we are progressing the work on that, and will continue the talks.”