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Newspapers could face fines following PCC revamp

The chairman of the Press Complaints Commission yesterday paved the way for its abolition by telling the Leveson Inquiry that a “totally new body” was needed to oversee the industry.

Lord Hunt put forward a proposal for what is being termed “contractual” self-regulation of the press as opposed to a statutory watchdog.

He suggested a three-pronged organisation which would deal with complaints, enforce standards and mediate disputes and award compensation.

Earlier the PCC’s director Stephen Abell told the inquiry any new system would include financial penalties for newspapers which step out of line.

Lord Hunt said:  “I have come to the conclusion that we do urgently need a fresh start and a totally new body with substantially increased powers to audit and enforce compliance with the code, to require access to documents, summon witnesses when necessary and also to impose fines, all backed by the commercial contracts.”

He said publishers would have to sign up to the new body on a five-year rolling contract.

Lord Hunt argued that a new parliamentary bill to regulate newspapers would “open a Pandora’s box,”

Asked whether MPs might use it as a way of controlling the press, he replied:  “Yes, and they have told me so, many of them in both houses.”

Earlier Mr Abell raised the issue of the industry working within a contractual framework when he was questioned yesterday about the future of press regulation.

The proposed “contractual model” would create a “more solid, more explicit and more enforceable” set of parameters within which the press could operate, he said.

But Mr Abell warned that if the press failed to come up with an adequate system, state intervention would be inevitable.

“The bottom line with all of this is that if major players aren’t willing to be part of a system then … even though it creates huge difficulties, something more impositional from the state will take place,” he said.

Meanwhile Sir Christopher Meyer issued a vigorous defence of his record as head of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) today, insisting Britain’s newspaper regulation system was “as good as you’re going to get”.

He told the Leveson Inquiry that criticising the PCC for failing to prevent mistakes by the press was like telling bishops: “We still have sin after all these years, you had better give up and go.”

“What I would regret to see emerging from this inquiry is a system of regulation which is more oppressive than need be because of the phone hacking, which I think has got very little to do with press regulation,” he said.

“The PCC doesn’t always get it right, and it needs strengthening, but it’s a service to the public.”