- 17 января 2012, 18:04
James Harding tells Leveson inquiry that new regulator must be 'muscular and independent', but he fears effects of any new law
The editor of Rupert Murdoch's Times newspaper has said he is "deeply opposed" to any form of statutory regulation of the press because he fears it would lead ultimately to government controls.
James Harding told the Leveson inquiry on Tuesday that any new press regulator needed to be "muscular and independent", but he feared the judge's investigation into press ethics would lead to an act of parliament that would stifle the press.
"We don't want a country in which the government, the state, regulates the papers … we don't want to be in a position where the prime minister decides what goes in newspapers," he said.
He added that if the outcome of the inquiry was a "Leveson act", even one just offering a statutory backstop to an independent press regulator, it would be unworkable.
"The concern is that a Leveson act would give a mechanism to politicians to loom over future coverage," of politics, Harding said, and start introducing amendments to this legislation "and that would have a chilling effect on the press".
His views appeared to echo those of the chief executive of the Times publisher News International, Tom Mockridge, who was also giving evidence on Tuesday.
He said that "once the state intervenes, the state intervenes". He told Leveson that with its free press "this country enjoys something precious and something I would say many people in other countries would look up to".
Mockridge, who worked for Murdoch in Italy, New Zealand and Australia before being asked to take over from Rebekah Brooks at News International at the height of the phone-hacking scandal last July, also told Leveson that many outside the UK "look at the British press with jealousy due to the extent of competition and choice in the marketplace".
It was Mockridge's first public appearance in the UK and his testimony was largely limited to questions about corporate governance at News International since he arrived.
He said it "might be overambitious to say the culture has changed" in just six months since he took over with a brief to sort out News International following the phone-hacking affair, but there had been changes in the governance structure including a ban on the use of private investigators and new, stricter rules government cash payments to sources.
"I have required of the editors and managing editors that we don't employ PIs [private investigators] and search agencies are subject [to] the general governance of the company – they can't operate in a way different to employees of the company would," Mockridge added.
"It might be overambitious to say the culture entirely has changed in six months, but there has been a change of policy … and individuals are rigorously applying policy."
An internal investigation into phone hacking was still be conducted, he said.
Lord Justice Leveson told Harding that the phone-hacking scandal had prompted the inquiry but that he wanted to make sure the press had every opportunity to come up with a solution for a new regulatory system that would work for the press and the public in the long term.
"I am struck by the history of these sorts of exercises [reviews of press regulation], the number of times it is happened since the war. I don't think it's very good for the country and I don't think it's very good for the press," Leveson said.
"The system has to be sufficiently robust to cope with the trouble so that in 10 years' time we don't have to do the whole thing again."
Harding replied that even a "statutory backstop" – such as legislation to create a legal framework for a new press regulator – was unworkable because it would be the thin edge of the wedge.
"Any future infringement by the press, any future failings by the press – and there will be, whatever we come up with here, shortcomings – it gives politicians the opportunity to say 'well Lord Justice Leveson's work was good, but we're going to just ratchet it up a little bit through this amendment or through that small act of legislation', and that's something I hope this inquiry will think about," Harding said.
The Times editor added that he hoped Leveson would come up with a new framework that would ensure the press "treats people better in the future" by giving them "meaningful redress" if they are wronged.
He said he also supported a new press regulator with powers to investigate and to punish newspapers that had been in the wrong.
He defended his own newspaper's record of reporting the phone-hacking scandal and said it had not pursued it as intensely as the Guardian, not because the paper was a sister title to the News of the World but because his proprietor and the police were pouring cold water on it when it first broke in 2009.
An 1,800-word leader in the Times on Tuesday conceded that News International was "unable or unwilling to police itself" and that its failure to do so was "a disgrace".
Harding revealed that Murdoch is a frequent caller and has taken a particular interest in the paper's coverage of the Eurozone crisis.
"Sometimes you won't hear from him for weeks and then occasionally a couple of things are happening and you will get a couple of calls in a week and usually that's driven by the news," he said. "So in the runup to Christmas, we spoke quite often because he was very interested, as was I, in what was happening in the Eurozone," he said.
The inquiry also head from News International's chief financial officer, Susan Panuccio, who said cash payments had dropped substantially since the scandal over phone hacking had blown up. In the past six months only £50,000 has been issued in cash for stories.
The highest cash payment the company had made for a story since she was appointed in 2008 was £150,000 for the 2010 News of the World cricket matching fixing scoop.
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