UK gov't: Press must face tougher penalties

AP News
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Posted: Feb 12, 2012 10:01 AM
UK gov't: Press must face tougher penalties

Britain's press must face tougher penalties for breaches of standards in the wake of the tabloid phone-hacking scandal, the government minister responsible for the media said Sunday.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt said newspapers must change their system of self-regulation, but insisted the government should not have any role in enforcing standards.

Britain's current watchdog, the Press Complaints Commission, is funded by the industry itself and can demand a newspaper publishes an apology, but has no power to issue fines. The country's broadcasters are regulated by a separate communications industry watchdog.

Some lawmakers have previously suggested journalists who breach ethics rules should be prevented from working, meaning the written press would need a professional register similar to the list held by the General Medical Council, which licenses and monitors the performance of doctors.

Britain's media ethics inquiry, which has heard evidence from celebrities including J.K. Rowling and Hugh Grant, crime victims, newspaper executives and reporters, is expected to recommend major changes to press regulation when it issues findings later this year.

"I think everyone recognizes we don't want the state regulating content," Hunt told BBC television. "We have one of the most lively presses in the world, they make life for me and my colleagues extremely uncomfortable and it is part of keeping us on the straight and narrow."

He continued: "But on the other hand we need to have a tougher system ... but it needs to be properly independent of newspaper proprietors and newspaper editors and if a newspaper is going to be punished for stepping out of line then it needs to be a credible punishment."

Hunt's comments follow new developments in the police investigations into alleged wrongdoing by Britain's tabloids.

Five employees at The Sun tabloid, Britain's biggest-selling newspaper were arrested Saturday in an inquiry into the alleged payment of bribes to police and other officials, prompting executives to issue a message to staff insisting owner Rupert Murdoch did not plan to close down the title.

In July, Murdoch shuttered the 168-year-old News of The World tabloid amid public outrage when the extent of its phone hacking of celebrities, public figures and crime victims was exposed.

The Sun's deputy editor Geoff Webster, picture editor John Edwards, chief reporter John Kay, chief foreign correspondent Nick Parker and reporter John Sturgis were all arrested Saturday, News International CEO Tom Mockridge said in the note emailed to staff.

They, and three public officials also arrested Saturday _ a police officer, a serving member of the armed forces and a defense ministry official _ were released on police bail pending further inquiries.

Murdoch, whose News Corp. bought The Sun in 1969, is scheduled to travel to Britain within days to spend time with his company's staff, as the scandal over tabloid malpractice continues to rattle the country's media industry.

Four other current and former journalists at The Sun were also arrested last month in connection with the same investigation. A total of 21 people have now been arrested in the bribery probe _ including three police officers _ though none has yet been charged.

Any convictions for bribery offenses could have repercussions for News Corp. in the U.S., where the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act can be used to impose hundreds of millions of dollars in fines even in cases where activity has occurred overseas.

Police are also continuing inquiries into the extent of phone hacking and the alleged illegal access of emails by British reporters.

Hunt told the BBC that any new regulator for Britain's press must also be capable of regulating new forms of written journalism and reporting on the Internet.

He has previously highlighted issues where injunctions _ or gag orders _ imposed by judges to restrict media reporting have been flouted by ordinary members of the public using social networks. In the most notorious case last year, a court injunction that prevented the media from identifying a soccer player who had had an affair was routinely ignored by thousands of Twitter users.

Hunt said he hoped Britain could "put in place a new, modern regulatory structure that helps the newspaper industry evolve and deal with the challenges of the Internet and deal with the fact people want to read their news on the go."

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David Stringer can be reached at http://bit.ly/b2tTK0