Leveson report: Maria Miller says report a 'dark moment' for press

Culture Secretary Maria Miller: "If the industry does not respond, the government will"

The Leveson report marks a "dark moment in the history of the British press", the culture secretary has said during a six-hour debate by MPs on the report.

Maria Miller said the government had "grave concerns" about the judge's call for press regulation to be underpinned by statute, but had not ruled it out.

Labour said the Leveson proposal was "ingenious" and should be implemented.

Cross-party talks are ongoing and the government is drawing up draft legislation on a new press watchdog.

No 10 said there was no timetable for producing this legislation and the process had only just begun.

Lord Justice Leveson has recommended an independent self-regulatory body for the newspaper industry, backed up by legislation to ensure its independence and effectiveness.

Labour leader Ed Miliband and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg have voiced their support for the Leveson report to be implemented. Labour says it is drafting its own bill in case no agreement can be reached.

'Puppet show'

But Prime Minister David Cameron has indicated he has "serious concerns and misgivings" about any legislation to regulate the press and wants newspapers to sign up to a tougher new regulator, without the need for legislation.

Culture Secretary Maria Miller told MPs there was a need for cross-party unity.

She said: "We must not allow this debate to polarise us. We all agree on the need for a tough and independent regulator for the press.

"We all agree that the suffering of the victims and their families cannot be allowed to happen again.

Proposed new press law

Would:

  • Create a process to "validate" the independence and effectiveness of the new self-regulation body
  • Validate a new process of independent arbitration for complainants - which would benefit both the public and publishers by providing speedy resolutions
  • Place a duty on government to protect the freedom of press

Would not:

  • Establish a body to regulate the press directly
  • Give any Parliament or government rights to interfere with what newspapers publish

"We all agree that the status quo is not an option. It is the responsibility of this House to ensure that whatever is put in place is effective."

She stressed the government had a "grave concern about the use of statutory legislation" to underpin the new regulator, but added that action "would include legislation" if the industry's proposals fall short of Leveson's principles.

"We will not accept a puppet show with the same people pulling the same strings," she told MPs.

Mrs Miller, the prime minister, the Press Complaints Commission chairman Lord Hunt and national newspaper editors will take part in talks on Tuesday.

Newspapers generally support the idea of a beefed-up independent regulator, but are against it being backed up in law.

Shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman said statute was needed because the current system of self regulation had "failed".

She labelled Lord Justice Leveson's proposal for self regulation, backed by law, as "ingenious" and said it was "essential" the proposal be implemented.

'Statute essential'

"Let us be clear, having a statute to guarantee this is not some incidental add-on to Lord Justice Leveson's report, some optional extra," she said.

"It is a complete contradiction in terms for people to say 'I want to implement Leveson but without statute'. Leveson says statute is essential."

But, she said, any legislation should be as "narrow in scope as possible".

A Labour Party source said it was serious about the cross-party talks currently taking place, but if the government failed to come up with its own workable bill, it would put its alternative proposal to the Commons for a vote in January.

Any vote would not be binding on the government.

A number of backbenchers spoke during the debate, some of whom disagreed with the position their party has taken.

Conservative MP for Richmond Park Zac Goldsmith said he did not accept the "hyperbole" from media commentators opposed to change and said he would support a regulatory body backed by law.

David Cameron's former press secretary George Eustice, MP for Camborne and Redruth, said the press should be allowed six weeks to come up with their own proposals, after which Parliament should be given a free vote to decide whether legislation should be introduced.

Lib Dem Bob Russell, a former local newspaper reporter, said he was against press regulation and feared a future government "could use the legislation to undermine and stifle a truly free press".

Former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett, who has come out against regulation backed by law, said he believed consensus could be reached if the press signed up to the principles Lord Justice Leveson has set out for an independent regulator.

Lord Justice Leveson criticised the "culture of reckless and outrageous journalism" that dominated parts of the press for decades, when he announced the conclusions of his 16-month inquiry, set up in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal.

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