Times editor has cunning plan for press: ‘judicial oversight’

Nov 27, 2012
Richard A Jinman

James Harding says the media can’t police itself, but rejects calls for statutory regulation

ON THE EVE of the Leveson report on press standards, James Harding, editor of The Times, has broken ranks to say newspapers have forfeited the right to self-regulation.

In an editorial in today’s Times, he proposes a "middle way" between the current system of self-regulation and full-on statutory regulation, which is what many politicians and newspaper editors fear Lord Leveson will recommend.

Harding proposes an independent regulator run by the public and overseen by a lawyer appointed by the Lord Chief Justice. This “judicial oversight” would stop the regulator "falling into the clutches of the industry", he says.

Such a system would be far preferable to new laws controlling the media which would "hand politicians moral responsibility for the press" and lead to editors and journalists being in "constant negotiation" with Westminster.

Harding’s proposal comes a day after Labour leader Ed Miliband urged Prime Minister David Cameron to implement Lord Leveson’s proposals when they are released on Thursday and two days after Will Hutton, a former editor of The Observer, argued it was time to regulate the press.

Harding acknowledges that the British press has abused its power and intruded into people’s private lives, destroying the public’s faith in the Press Complaints Commission, the industry body that currently deals with reader complaints.

He describes the hacking scandal at the News of the World – a paper, like the Times, published by Rupert Murdoch’s News International – as unequivocally "wrong". He also apologises for an "incident of alleged email hacking" at the Times, a reference to an incident when a former Times reporter used email hacking to expose the identity of an anonymous police blogger.
The Guardian media commentator Roy Greenslade describes Harding’s stance as a "significant innovation" coming from a New International editor calling it "an heretic departure from the industry’s script about what should be done". It shows, says Greenslade, there will need to be substantial changes to the Hunt-Black plan – a proposed system of regulation based on contract law put forward by Telegraph executive director Lord (Guy) Black and PCC chairman Lord Hunt - to "secure full industry support".

The Press Gazette reports that the Financial Times, The Guardian and the Independent have all declined to sign up to a letter circulated by Hunt and Black that states their new model for press regulation "will address the criticisms made at the [Leveson] inquiry".

At the moment, of course, no one knows exactly what Leveson will recommend. The Prime Minister will see his report tomorrow, and the rest of us on Thursday. The general assumption is that Leveson will recommend statutory controls – but it is perfectly possible he has a model like Harding’s in mind.

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