U.K. Prime Minister, News International CEO Support Stricter Press Regulation

David Cameron - The Prime Minister Leaves Downing Street - 2011
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Ahead of the final Leveson Inquiry report, they say the current self-regulation system needs change, but the latter emphasized his opposition to state intervention.

LONDON - The final Leveson Inquiry report into U.K. media ethics and standards is scheduled to be unveiled here on Thursday, including recommendations for how to avoid the kind of press excesses seen in the phone hacking scandal. And British politicians, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, on Wednesday provided last-minute signals on which possible recommendations they would be open to.

Meanwhile, the CEO of the U.K. newspaper unit of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. on Wednesday warned that while the regulatory system needs changes, the establishment of a government regulator, an idea popular with the public, would go too far.

In a parliamentary debate, Cameron said Wednesday: "The status quo, I would argue, does not just need updating. The status quo is unacceptable and needs to change...What matters most is that we end up with an independent regulatory system, in which we can have confidence."

He added: "I would agree that a free press is absolutely vital to democracy…This government set up Leveson because of unacceptable practices in part of the media and a failed regulatory system…we should try to work across party lines on this issue."

That led the Guardian to suggest that Cameron's coalition government would reject recent proposals from the Press Complaints Commission, which is being phased out, for self-regulation of the newspaper industry with more punch, including fines. The government could push for a regulator that is more independent of the industry, the paper said.

Cameron didn't quite call for a statutory regulator, meaning one created by the government and based on state laws.

However, a fellow politician of the Conservative Party and member of parliament, Philip Davies, warned him that his comments sounded that way. "Can I warn you not to be remembered as the prime minister who introduced state regulation of the press," he said. "Regulation of the press is like pregnancy – just as you're either pregnant or not pregnant, you either have state regulation or you don't."

Cameron's Conservative Party and the opposition Labour Party are expected to formally comment on the Leveson Report on Thursday. Cameron's Liberal Democrats coalition partner may issue a joint statement with the Conservatives or, for the first time in the current government, request a separate comment slot. Political leaders received copies of the Leveson report, which will formally be unveiled early London afternoon, on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, News International CEO Tom Mockridge said the current press regulation system requires "fundamental change," but the launch of any statutory supervisor would "cross the Rubicon" and amount to "sending people into newspaper offices to determine what is a good story and a bad story."

"The industry needs to have tougher and more effective regulation," Mockridge said in a BBC Radio interview. "There is a strong view across the industry and outside it that the previous structure wasn't fully effective, but you still do not cross the Rubicon. Once the state intervenes, the state intervenes."

He also ruled out any possibility that his company could close the Sun tabloid. News Corp. shuttered the News of the World amid the phone hacking scandal.

The British public, meanwhile, seems to support the idea of a government regulator for newspapers. A survey conducted by YouGov on behalf of the Media Standards Trust found that 79 percent were in favor of an independent press regulator established by law, according to the Guardian. Only 9 percent were opposed.

Newspaper publishers are opposed to a regulator underpinned by law, but disagree about the degree to which a regulator should be independent of industry.

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com
Twitter: @georgszalai