Lord Black has warned the Leveson Inquiry a regulator with statutory underpinning will become a “target” for the press.
Black chairman of the Press Board of Finance, the body that funds the Press Complaints Commission, said today decisions by a new regulator based in statute will be constantly challenged by publishers.
Black – also a senior executive of the Telegraph Group – said: “A statutory system, which would be forced on a majority of unwilling publishers, is likely to become a target to be aimed at rather than a framework within which to be worked for the benefit of both the public and the public interest.”
He added: “It is my belief that the vast bulk of the industry remained opposed to that and that is very much the flavour of the responses that I’ve received through consultation exercises.”
“I have always believed and I believe it is a view across the bulk of the industry that self-regulation is the guarantor of press freedom and interference from state control. I think the moment that statute enters the system, we’re in a very different system where government can control, however limited it might appear to be at the start.”
Black – who referred to his proposal as “independently-led self regulation” – was challenged by inquiry counsel Robert Jay QC, who said the public would see “willing co-operation” with the press in the new system. Black said the introduction of statute would bring “considerable legal challenge” from the industry.
Black went on to deny his proposal was “the son of the PCC” by arguing it would have the power to levy fines and robust enforcement of standards. The body would consist of a central trust board – made up of an independent chairman, three lay members and three non-serving press representatives – and oversee a complaints committee, a compliance and investigations panel and an arbitration arm for libel and privacy disputes.
Black’s written statement read: “The trust board will have a majority of independent, public members on it. It is proposed that there should be seven directors in total comprising the independent chairman of the regulator, three public members who have no connection with the print or digital media and three press or new media representatives. The appointment of the independent members of the board will be through an independent appointments process determined by the trust Board itself in line with public appointments procedures. Members will serve a three-year term, renewable once. It will be for the Trust Board to put in place arrangements to ensure the orderly rotation of members.”
Lord Justice Leveson said he could “see blood all over” the proposal and told Lord Black he appreciated the difficult consultation process PressBoF has undertaken since the chairman originally appeared at the inquiry in February. Black met newspaper owners and publishers through trade associations like the Newspaper Publishers Association, but has not consulted the National Union of Journalists or the public. Black said PressBoF had held back on drawing up detailed contracts before Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations are made public.
Black said the standards arm would be the most important element of the contract-based body and said he hoped improving internal governance would mean less money spent on handling complaints. The new body is expected to have an annual budget of £2.25 million, compared with the current £1.95 million funding the PCC.
He told the inquiry: “This contract is going to be handing a regulator for the first time in the newspaper industry’s history very serious powers.”
In February, Black said the News of the World phone hacking scandal meant a new regulator should have the ability to fine newspapers. He told the inquiry today he had proposed a “ring-fenced” fund to allow the body to investigate standards breaches, starting with £100,000 from the NPA.
Before Black took to the stand, Lord Justice Leveson opened module 4 – looking at future regulation – saying he had read all the evidence sent to him and would take every proposal into account before making recommendations later this year.
He told the inquiry he had asked Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers to return for a third time to give an update on police investigations Operations Weeting, Elveden and Tuleta, and would ask for another briefing in the autumn.
He added: “In response to the invitation that has been posted on the website from the outset, many hundreds of members of the public have offered both evidence and their views whether by letter or e mail. I am grateful for the interest that so many people have shown in the work of the Inquiry and I trust that, as intended, everyone has received an acknowledgment and an assurance that if the Inquiry wishes to take what they have said forward (and in more than a few cases that has happened), one of the Inquiry team would be in touch.
“My willingness to hear further evidence also means that if there is any other significant event which it is considered could substantially and significantly affect the Inquiry or its Terms of Reference, it will remain possible to notify the Inquiry team but that step should only be taken in truly exceptional cases. Save for the circumstances that I have outlined, the general collection of evidence has now concluded.”