David Cameron has said statutory regulation must be a “last resort” in reforming the British press.
Spending the day giving evidence before the Leveson Inquiry today, the prime minister — who himself called for the Inquiry into press standards — said he was not ruling out statutory involvement in a new regulator, but said there was a need to “make everything that can be independent work before you reach for that lever”.
He said independent regulation of the press must involve all newspapers, be compulsory, be able to impose penalties and have investigatory powers.
A reformed Press Complaints Commission (PCC) had to be seen to be simple, understandable and offer redress for ordinary individuals, he said.
The key, Cameron said, was if an individual suffered press intrusion or was the subject of an inaccurate article, “that it really is worth their while going to this regulator, however established, and they know they’re going to get a front-page apology.
“Are we really protecting people who have been caught up and absolutely thrown to the wolves by the press?” he asked, citing repeatedly the “catacylsmic” revelations of last summer that abducted schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked, which led to the closure of tabloid the News of the World and Cameron’s call for a public inquiry into press malfeasance.
“If families like the Dowlers feel this has really changed the way they would have been treated, we would have done our job properly,” Cameron said.
While he maintained he understood the “real concern” over statutory regulation of a free press, he repeated that he felt the country’s current system of press self-regulation had “failed”.
Lord Justice Leveson’s report, which will offer recommendations on future press regulation, is due to be published this autumn.
Cameron emerged from his day in the witness box relatively unscathed, save the revelation of a text message from former News International CEO Rebekah Brooks during the Conservative party conference in October 2009, in which she told the then leader of the opposition that ”professionally, we’re definitely in this together” and signed off “yes he Cam!”
Cameron also spoke cautiously about his appointment of former News of the Wold editor Andy Coulson as his communications chief in 2007, noting that it was “controversial” due to Coulson’s resignation from the tabloid following the jailing of one of its reporters on phone hacking offences.
Yet Cameron stressed he and current chancellor George Osborne felt Coulson was a “very effective” candidate.
“The calculation was, who is going to be good enough, tough enough to deal with a very difficult job,” Cameron said.
He described the issue of Coulson’s lower-level vetting by Number 10 as a “red herring”, and defended handing responsibility of the £8bn bid for control of BSkyB to culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, telling the Inquiry that it had been endorsed by Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell and backed with legal advice.
Looking to the future, Cameron recommended greater distance and respect between members of the press and politicians, noting that the relationship was not “a particularly trusting one at the moment”.
“When I got into Downing Street I did try to create a bit more distance. I think I need to go back and do that again,” Cameron said.
The Inquiry continues next week.
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