Cameron Tells Newspaper Editors to Make Self-Regulation Work

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U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron met newspaper editors to urge them to set up a system of self-regulation, as opponents of proposals from a media-ethics panel begin to shift position.

During a House of Commons debate late yesterday on judge Brian Leveson’s proposal for a new independent regulator, David Blunkett, a Labour lawmaker and adviser to News Corp. who last week organized a letter opposing any state intervention, said he was now “moving the other way.”

“Those who’ve taken principled sides are so close together now, if they can take a step back, we’ll find a way forward,” Blunkett said, arguing that Leveson’s proposals were “not so much underpinning as oversight.” He urged opponents and supporters of the plans to engage with each other. “It’s going to take people sitting down in the next few weeks and agreeing to bury the hatchet.”

Cameron on Nov. 29 said he wasn’t prepared to “cross the Rubicon” and accept Leveson’s recommendation that any new regulator set up by the press would need to be recognized in law. Today he told editors gathered in his Downing Street office in London that they need to design a regulator sufficiently independent to dampen calls for full implementation of the Leveson report.

“I’ve told them that they have to produce a tough, independent regulatory system, rapidly,” Cameron told the BBC after the meeting. “They know, because I’ve told them, that the clock is ticking for this to be sorted out.”

The Godfather

Daily Telegraph editor Tony Gallagher compared those present to mafia bosses. “It felt like the summoning of the Five Families in The Godfather,” he said on his Twitter Inc. feed.

The prime minister is on the other side of the argument from the opposition Labour Party, his Liberal Democrat coalition partners and some of his own Conservative lawmakers. In his response to Leveson, he left himself room to move backwards, not ruling out changing the law.

Spectator magazine editor Fraser Nelson, who last week said he’d go to prison rather than sign up to any form of regulation backed by law, signalled a deal could be reached. “Distance between Leveson’s proposed regulation and what press is prepared to sign up to v small,” he said on Twitter. “Statute should not be needed to close gap.”

‘Entirely Sensible’

One Conservative opponent of statutory regulation who said yesterday he found Leveson’s proposals acceptable was John Whittingdale, chairman of Parliament’s Culture Committee. While he signed Blunkett’s letter last week, he said last night that the new body “could have some kind of statutory support.” He said it could be modeled on Ireland’s Press Council. That is recognized in law, and offers members some protection from libel actions. “That seems to me entirely sensible,” Whittingdale said.

Leveson on Nov. 29 proposed a watchdog with the power to issue fines of as much as 1 million pounds ($1.6 million) for serious infractions. Though the judge didn’t propose forcing news organizations to join the regulator -- a step publishers and some lawmakers said this week would violate press freedom -- he did say legislation would be needed to underpin the watchdog and give it formal recognition.

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