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Press owners unveil plan for beefed-up watchdog

Newspaper owners have put forward plans for a powerful new industry watchdog with the power to find media outlets up to £1m for breaches of the Editor’s Code.

Under proposals tabled  at the Leveson Inquiry into press standards, the public rather than editors would be given a majority on the new body set up to judge complaints.

Publishers will be required to submit an annual ‘ethical audit’ to the regulator which would have the power to impose maximum fines where there were “systematic breakdowns in ethical behaviour or internal governance.”

The plans have been put forward by Lord Hunt, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, and Lord Black, who chairs the Press Standards Board of Finance (PressBoF) which funds it, in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the system of press self-regulation.

Lord Black said:  “For the bulk of complaints, an expert conciliation mechanism will provide swift and effective resolution.

“At the other end of the scale, where there have been systematic breakdowns in ethical behaviour or internal governance, the [regulatory body] will be able to levy proportionate fines of up to £1m.”

Lord Hunt told the inquiry: “I hope that a tougher, more proactive new system would not only deal robustly with extremely egregious cases once they had occurred; it would also serve to prevent them ever happening, by changing attitudes and newsroom cultures.”

Both men said self-regulation was a better way of policing the newspaper industry than statutory regulation.

Lord Hunt said he had been “uncomfortably aware”, since becoming PCC chairman last year, that the concept of press self regulation had become “tainted and discredited” in the eyes of many people

But he said “true” self regulation had not been attempted and the PCC had been “damned for failing to exercise powers it never had”.

“Although the PCC does possess some qualities of a regulator, it is primarily a complaints-led organisation,” he added. “That is not comprehensive self regulation; it is complaints handling.”

Lord Hunt added: “The new regulator must be the scourge of the bad, the irresponsible and downright cruel, but it should also be the stout friend and the unrepentant defender of good, decent, hard-working journalists.”