Published February 12, 2012
LONDON – Britain's government minister responsible for the media said Sunday the country's press must face tougher penalties for breaches of standards in the wake of the tabloid phone-hacking scandal.
Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt also said newspapers must change their system of self-regulation, but insisted the government should not have any role in enforcing standards. The current watchdog, the Press Complaints Commission, is funded by the industry and can demand a newspaper publishes an apology, but has no power to issue fines.
Some lawmakers have previously suggested journalists who breach ethics rules should be prevented from working.
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.
But Hunt said Britain needed "a tougher system and I would like it to be an industry-led system," but added that "if a newspaper is going to be punished for stepping out of line then it needs to be a credible punishment."
The country's broadcasters are regulated by a separate communications industry watchdog.
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.
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.
Opposition Labour Party lawmaker Tom Watson, a frequent critic of News Corp. who has worked to exposed tabloid wrongdoing, said Murdoch still had questions to address over the scandal.
"It's quite clear to me that over many years wrongdoing took place on a number of newspapers at News International. He's the boss of the company, he's responsible for corporate governance," Watson told BBC television.
All five staff at The Sun and three public officials arrested in the bribe inquiry Saturday -- a police officer, a serving member of the armed forces and a defense ministry official -- were released on bail pending further inquiries.
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 overseeing new forms of written journalism and reporting on the Internet.
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."