Article link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/nov/13/lord-hunt-pcc-interview
PCC chairman Lord Hunt: the greater challenge is with bloggersHe quotes Wilkes and Thatcher, admits he doesn't know much about how papers work, and reveals how he will run the PCC
- Roy Greenslade
He laughs heartily before delivering a deadpan reply: "I applied for two reasons – because I have a passionate commitment to freedom of expression and because I have a complete hostility to any form of statutory regulation."
Throughout our interview, this mantra is repeated at intervals. "I come at the job with a fervent belief in self-regulation," he says, "having seen the downsides of statutory regulation."
Hunt is the third Conservative peer to chair the PCC, but it's fair to say that although Lord Wakeham and Lady Buscombe dealt with crises during their tenures, he is facing the possibility of presiding over the commission's collapse.
It is therefore his task to find a way of convincing politicians, the public and Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry team that the PCC should be preserved.
He must do so against a background of long-held public scepticism about the PCC's shortcomings and its perceived failure under Buscombe to deal properly with the phone hacking scandal. That led directly to David Cameron's decision to set up the Leveson inquiry into the efficacy of press self-regulation and to Buscombe's swift resignation.
Hunt, a seasoned politician and a working solicitor who has specialised in regulatory and administrative law, does not appear at all worried by the responsibility he has assumed. He has a reputation as a decent, emollient and moderate man, who prefers to work by consensus rather than confrontation.
He confirms that by saying: "I have arrived with a blank piece of paper. The one message I want to get across is that I'm listening.
"I want to be guided by the people who really know. I'm determined to set the agenda as long as [the people in] the industry are prepared to share with me their thoughts about the way in which the challenge of self-regulation can be met successfully."
To that end, he will attend the Society of Editors' annual conference at Runnymede today (taking part in a debate on "a new Magna Carta" for the media), and is seeing editors individually. He had already spent an hour with the Guardian's Alan Rusbridger and with the Sunday Times's John Witherow before we met. His calendar is filling up with similar meetings, he says, including visits to regional editors. He also plans to engage with the PCC's most prominent critics, such as the Hacked Off campaigners and the Media Standards Trust.
And after all that consultation, what then? "It would be my wish, provided I can complete my piece of paper, to present a solution in the early part of next year." In other words, long before Leveson completes his work.
Does he at least recognise why the PCC has run into trouble? He refuses to be drawn, but he concedes that the commission, though recognised for its mediation and arbitration work, has not been a regulator.
He says: "The important thing is to try to get a balance between a complaints handling service and a regulatory approach, and speaking as a lawyer, these are separate matters, and if there has been a difficulty in the past, it is that people have confused the two." This seems to imply that he will seek to find a way of fusing the two strands, which might conceivably save the PCC.
Among a host of reforms to consider, there are two major ideas being floated: should the commission have investigatory powers, and should it be able to impose harsher sanctions, such as fines, on those who breach the editors' code of practice? He chooses to praise the code – "there is nothing wrong with it," he says firmly – without commenting on potential extensions to the PCC's powers.
While admitting that he knows nothing about the internal workings of newspapers, he does express an admiration for the "overwhelming majority of journalists" he has met, speaking of their integrity and adherence to professional standards.
Hunt is particularly warm about Peter Saunders, the reporter who covered the Wirral for the Liverpool Daily Post for 30 years and who died in August. "He represented all that was best in journalism," says Hunt. He reveals that he lived next door to the Daily Mail's late editor, Sir David English, for 16 years in Westminster, calling him "somebody who was the epitome of integrity".
He also praises the former Guardian journalist David Hencke and the Press Association's former parliamentary correspondent Chris Moncrieff as people "determined to get at the truth, people who believed in accuracy, people who subscribe to the code".
But, I counter, surely the major problems occur because of the tabloids? "No," he replies, "I think the greater challenge is with the bloggers, whether it's Guido Fawkes or whoever."
Hunt, who served in both the Thatcher and Major cabinets, has had his share of newspaper scorn in the past, which he views equably. He reminds me of an article in the Times by Andrew Pierce headlined: "Is David Hunt a sponge? Perhaps not, because even a sponge can be useful."
He giggles before adding with due self-deprecation: "I think that was all part of fair comment. I didn't think of suing. As a lawyer who has dealt in defamation, I know that someone's reputation has to be lowered in the eyes of right-thinking people to sue."
What prompted him suddenly to apply for the PCC post? It transpires that one of his predecessors, John Wakeham, urged him to go for it. "He got me in a corner," he says. Then he consulted another former chairman, Sir Christopher Meyer, who also supported the idea.
It's an everyday story of how the great and the good in the British political elite operate. I suspect that the PCC's critics would also point to the fact that yet another Tory peer, Lord (Guy) Black, chaired the selection panel that handed the job to Hunt.
Despite the apparent cosiness, however, Hunt is aware that the public scrutiny of the commission in this post-hacking era means that there cannot be a behind-the-scenes fix. The only hope for the PCC is genuine reform.
Hunt says: "I did feel at my first commission meeting that there was an appetite for fundamental reform among the members.
"My way is to look forward, not back. Events [hacking and Leveson] have conspired to provide us with a great opportunity to set up a lasting structure that will be clearly in the public interest. And public interest is the guiding philosophy."
Warming to his theme, he bounds from his chair to rifle through papers on his desk to find a copy of the recent speech by the Lord Chief Justice ("Igor Judge is one of my heroes"), and a quote in it from the 18th-century radical and champion of press freedom John Wilkes: "The liberty of the press is a birthright of a Briton and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country."
Hunt enthuses: "I'm 100% in agreement. That, for me, is why I've come into this job." He then mentions a somewhat less well known press freedom advocate, Margaret Thatcher, and hands me a copy of her maiden speech in the Commons in 1960. Making a clarion call for the admission of the press to local authority meetings, she said: "The public has a right … to know what its elected representatives are doing."
Hunt adds: "An awful lot of people forget that." In fairness, I think an awful lot of people, including me, never even knew about it in the first place.