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Press challenged on regulation

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Posted by Ben Fenton, Chief Media Correspondent Financial Times

Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, has challenged the national newspaper industry to put its house in order by devising a regulatory system free from interference by powerful owners. He added that regulation would also have to apply to their websites, including the video that would increasingly become part of the traditional “newspaper" offering online.

Speaking at the Royal Television Society convention in Cambridge on Wednesday, Mr Hunt said that in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World, the public would insist on a “system of robust, independent regulation with credible sanction-making power".

While emphasising that the government would await the results of the Leveson inquiry into the workings of the press and its relations with the police and politicians, he said the current self-regulatory system, centred on the Press Complaints Commission, funded by the newspaper industry, could not carry on.

He made clear the government preferred an alternative system in which proprietors were not involved.

“Independence [for a regulator] means freedom from interference by politicians, but also from media owners so that complaints about press behaviour can be dealt with credibly.

“Other industries have developed models which have robust and credible sanction regimes and we should consider them with an open mind as we await Lord Justice Leveson's recommendations."

He said the new digital era, blurring distinctions between print and video, gave the newspaper industry a chance to look to its future. “My challenge to you is this: work with us to establish a credible, independent regulatory framework which has the confidence of consumers and we will support it as the one-stop regulatory framework to be applied across all the technology platforms you operate."

In other parts of his speech, Mr Hunt laid down “directions of travel" for a proposed communications bill. He said that as the value of free-to-air licences fell in a digital age, public-service broadcasters such as ITV and Channel Five would have to be given more flexibility in their business models. However he gave no details of what he had in mind.

Mr Hunt told the audience, including the heads of all main UK broadcasters, he had asked Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, to consider how it could establish new measurements of media influence as part of a way of ensuring there was no concentration of power. This followed the row over Mr Murdoch's effort to buy the 60.9 per cent of British Sky Broadcasting he does not already own, a bid abandoned amid the controversy over phone hacking.

He added that he would ask the regulator to examine whether politicians should have any role at all in deciding who owned the media. The BSkyB affair had made him question whether it was right for any politician to take such important decisions. He said it was vital to avoid too much caution in setting out the regulatory framework for the creative industries, which offered the UK a greater opportunity for growth than any country in the world bar the US.

● Lord Justice Leveson has ruled that 46 victims of phone hacking or press intrusion will be represented by a single barrister when the first phase of his inquiry begins its public sessions, probably next month.

DATELINE: 4 January, 2012


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