British newspaper editors have been warned by UK Prime Minister David Cameron that they must act “urgently” to set up an independent press regulator.
Cameron took part in a summit of senior industry figures at Number 10 to hear proposals for a new regime not backed by law.
British Culture Secretary Maria Miller has made clear that the option of legislation called for by the Leveson Report remains an option if progress cannot be made.
I've just spoken to newspaper editors in No.10 - telling them they need to set up an independent regulator urgently.— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) December 4, 2012
Speaking after taking part in the high-level meeting, Mr Cameron said he had made clear that “the clock is ticking'' for the industry to agree action.
“They have got to do it in a way that absolutely meets the requirement of Lord Justice Leveson’s report,” he said.
“That means million-pound fines, proper investigation of complaints, prominent apologies, a tough independent regulatory system.
“And they know, because I told them, the clock is ticking for this to be sorted out.”
Cameron has expressed “serious concerns and misgivings” about resorting to any form of statutory underpinning for press regulation.
But with Labour and the Liberal Democrats united in favour, his own backbenches split and phone-hacking victims leading a campaign for full implementation, he is under huge pressure.
An online petition launched by campaign group Hacked Off has so far attracted more than 135,000 signatures in favour of statutory underpinning.
Mrs Miller told MPs last night that change has to happen either “with the support of the press or – if we are given no option – without it”.
Action “would include legislation” if industry proposals fall short of Leveson’s principles, she said, warning against a “puppet show with the same people pulling the same strings”.
David Hunt - who chairs the existing Press Complaints Commission - went into the talks claiming the support of 120 publishers, representing 2,000 editors, for a new independent regulator.
He believes legally-enforceable membership contracts could be used to give the new system force and avoid the need for statutory backing.
Officials at Mrs Miller’s Culture Department are drawing up a draft Bill to enact Leveson’s recommendations in full.
But she has indicated that she expects it to provide confirmation of concerns about the complexity and potential negative impact on press freedom.
Labour is drawing up its own draft legislation to demonstrate that Leveson’s recommendations could be implemented without the difficulties feared by ministers.
The Opposition’s Bill is expected to be completed before Christmas, paving the way for it to force a Commons vote by the end of January if no agreement is reached in cross-party talks.
Mrs Miller said the industry had "responded positively" to the challenge and would set out proposals within the next two days.
Speaking after the talks, she said: “There was unanimous agreement that what we need now is for the press to go forward with developing an independent self-regulatory body.
“The challenge has been thrown down to them. They have responded positively and it is now for them to go away and develop those plans.
“They want to come forward with those plans as quickly as possible.”
Asked how quickly she expected progress on a plan, she said: “The industry will be setting that out in the next two days.
“We are now in the middle of a process and I really think we need to make sure that process is completed.”
Daily Telegraph editor Tony Gallagher said the summit was attended by 19 editors and industry representatives, nine Whitehall officials and four ministers, including the Prime Minister and the Culture Secretary.
“It felt like the summoning of the Five Families in The Godfather,” he joked on Twitter.
Labour leader Ed Miliband, who met Hacked Off representatives including phone-hacking victims in his office as the summit went on in Downing Street, said they wanted “more than good intentions” from the press.
“What I heard from the victims of sections of the press is that they are pleased there are good intentions from the editors but they want more than good intentions.
“They want the force of law to make sure those good intentions are turned into reality.
“We have heard good intentions before but those good intentions have essentially drained away and we have ended up back to where we started and they have suffered abuse.”
He said he did not doubt the goodwill of editors promising action.
“But we have no guarantee that that goodwill and those good words are actually going to mean something on an ongoing basis.
“We need the promises that have been made to be put into legislation so that what we actually have is the independent self-regulation but we have the guarantee of law.
“Then we can say to members of the public ’Look, people have suffered in the past but Parliament has stepped up to its responsibilities, we’ve done the right thing whatever people in the press say... and actually we have ensured other people will not have to suffer in the future in the way that victims have suffered in the past’.”
Lloyd Embley, editor-in-chief of the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and The People, said after the talks that there was “a firm belief that papers can deliver Leveson principles far more quickly without legislation”.
In a Twitter post, he added: “Better for public and free speech.”