IT’S a year to the week since Lord David Hunt took over as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission in the wake of the phone hacking scandal.

But as a Government inquiry prepares to publish proposals on the future of press regulation and governance, Lord Hunt told the Daily Echo he believes revamped self-regulation is the way forward to preserve a free press.

Lord Hunt has spent the past year touring the country’s regional and local newspapers and has found a “vibrant industry” which he said represents the “gold standard” of a free press.

He acknowledged there had been a “serious loss of confidence and trust as a result of the activities of a small minority, particularly with phone hacking” but said people largely trusted their local and regional newspapers.

The former Tory Cabinet minister said: “In my experience as an MP for 21 years the local and regional press represents the gold standard of everything you would want to see in a free press.

“It mirrors the local community, speaks out on behalf of the local community and excites debate about what should and should not happen. It’s the life-blood of the local community.”
Lord Hunt readily admits the PCC, which he chairs and is to be abolished, has “no teeth”, calling it a “complaint handling organisation”.

But he has warned a statutory system of regulation would be too inflexible and unable to adapt to the changing new digital world, amounting to a “straitjacket” on the press.
Lord Hunt is championing a “new regulator with teeth” that would uphold the rights of the individual and the freedom of the press.

He has proposed a new self-regulation system based around contract law, which he says would legally bind publishers to follow a code of ethics, and allow a new standards board to launch investigations and levy potentially heavy fines for breaches of the code.

He says he has got the agreement of all the major newspaper publishers, and websites such as Huffington Post and Conservative Home, to launch the new regulator.

Lord Justice Leveson, who is chairing the inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics                  of the press, will make his recommendations to the Government by the end of the year.