Newspaper groups have criticised politicians’ proposals for the state to “impose” rules on the press for the first time in 300 years.
The Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, announced last week that the three main political parties had reached an agreement on new rules for dealing with complaints against newspapers and regulating journalists’ conduct.
However, the newspaper industry has rejected the plans, which would be underpinned by statute, and would compel publications to submit to the new regime.
The stand-off between newspaper representatives and politicians was no closer to resolution yesterday, with some reports suggesting that the press could launch a legal challenge against the government’s plan.
Last night a succession of senior Conservative figures warned ministers against attempting to force the press into submission in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry into wrongdoing by tabloid newspapers.
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Peter Lilley, a Cabinet minister in Sir John Major’s government, said the government’s proposals would fail if the newspaper industry refused to sign up, they said.
“We are better off with a free and nasty press than a controlled press that is made acceptable to politically correct opinion,” he said.
“If the newspapers don’t sign up then it is a bit of a vacuum, an empty vessel. If it is a club with few or no members then it is not going to work.”
Mr Lilley, the MP for Hitchen and Harpenden, said politicians should not be “setting out legislation on what goes in newspapers”, beyond the existing laws on libel and against phone hacking.
John Redwood, the Conservative MP for Wokingham and chair of the Chairman of the Conservative Economic Affairs Committee, said he the government’s plan would fail if newspapers refused to “play their part”.
“If you’re going to have a system of successful self-regulation, the press has to be involved in it and agree with it otherwise it isn’t a system of self-regulation,” he said. “Clearly it needs to be sorted out with the press.
“The second point is if you look at other industries it is quite possible to have bad regulation as well as good regulation and to make things worse rather than better.
“Many of the things that went wrong in the newspaper industry were against the law and the correct thing to do is to enforce the law.
“I am not in favour of massive change and I am certainly worried about anything that produces a row between the press and the politicians because it won’t result in a satisfactory system of self regulation.”
Angie Bray, a Conservative MP on the Commons culture select committee, called on Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, to hold further talks with the print media to reach a resolution.
“It is pointless to try and force a system on the free press that is not prepared to work with it,” she said. “I don’t think anybody knows how it is going to pan out.
“We still haven’t fully embraced the point that if the press decide that they’re not going to work with this, what are the sanctions?
“Fundamentally, we have a free press who will decide whether they want to cooperate.”
Jonathan Aitken, the former Conservative minister who was jailed for perjury in 1999 after a newspaper investigation, said despite his “rough” encounter with the press, he remained in favour “free” newspapers, rather than an industry which was “fettered”.
“I think these new proposals won’t work and won’t last. They won’t last because no parliament can bind its successors,” he said. “It won’t work because these are regulations which are being imposed by an all-party consensualist cabal of politicians and they want to curtail what is, after all, the historic liberty of press freedom.
“I think that liberty, and I know about the deficiencies and warts of the press, is something we should fight for.”
The newspapers’ steering group, representing national and local titles, has already said the regulation put forward have been “imposed by politicians and controlled by politicians”.
An industry source was reported to have warned that newspapers could take legal action over the Government’s plans.
Mrs Miller has said that the government’s proposals will “safeguard” the freedom of the press. Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman also insisted that a two-thirds majority would be needed in parliament to amend the new law, which would guard against state intrusion in the press in future.
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