The head of the Press Complaints Commission has said his proposals for a new regulatory body would produce “a radically different beast”.
Lord Hunt was speaking at Belfast City Hall as part of the Society of Editors annual conference taking place there — the first time it has been held in the city for 11 years.
The president of the Society of Editors, BBC head of newsgathering Fran Unsworth, travelled to Belfast for the conference but was forced to return to London to deal with the aftermath of director general George Entwistle’s resignation.
Lord Hunt, a former MP who served as a Cabinet minister under Baroness Thatcher and Sir John Major, said he wholly rejected calls for state regulation of the Press, instead promoting his own radical plans to restore public confidence.
“I believe the new regulator, through its standards arm, should do more to promulgate, within the industry and more widely, a compelling vision of what constitutes good journalism and a good journalist,” he said.
“The new regulator must not only be the scourge of bad practices. It must be the true and loyal friend of good journalism which, whilst it may not always be pretty, has at its heart, as its foundation stone, the public interest.”
Under his proposal publishers would sign-up to a system of self-regulation with penalties for those found to have engaged in bad practice.
Lord Hunt said the industry requires a regulator, as opposed to the role carried out by the current Press Complaints Commission (PCC) — that of a complaints handler.
And he said he was eager to learn what Lord Justice Leveson has made of his suggestions.
He said the PCC’s powers are currently too informal and too limited.
Lord Hunt said he recognised the importance of safeguarding the PCC’s duty to the public, but added that his remit when he came into the post was one of reform and regeneration.
The former Tory minister, who took up his post at the PCC last year, said: “My burning ambition was to close down the existing structure as soon as possible, replacing it with a completely new regulatory system that could convince Sir Brian Leveson, in good time, that true self-regulation of the Press really can work.
“It never occurred to me that, 12 months down the line, the PCC would still be in existence, and I would still be its chairman.”
Lord Hunt said it was crucial to preserve the arm of the body which protects the public’s interest while adding another arm, tasked with regulatory duties.
“On one side, publishers will undertake to fund the new structure, according to a fair and agreed formula,” he said.
“They must also accept its remit and its authority. The contract will make certain impositions upon the new regulator as well, and those who run it.
“It will have to behave in accordance with the law and with the Editors' Code, or whatever supplants it.”
He added: “We must never allow the litany of bad practice that was allowed to dominate the Leveson Inquiry to overshadow or jeopardise all that is good.” Lord Hunt said “good decent journalists” should not fear the revamp he proposes.
And he said public interest must remain at the core of the new body.
“Ultimately, the really important contract in the system I propose, is not the one between each publisher and the regulator,” he said. “It is the contract between the industry and the people of the United Kingdom.”
Lord Justice Leveson is expected to publish the findings of his inquiry in the next few weeks.