Hugh Grant leads fresh calls for an end to self-regulation of the press

-Hugh Grant leads fresh calls for an end to self-regulation of the press Hugh Grant Laying down the law … Hugh Grant wants an end to self regulation of the press. Photograph: Jemal Countess/Getty

Hugh Grant and some of the country’s leading journalism academics, including two former heads of BBC News, have renewed calls for the end of self-regulation of the press as battle lines are drawn ahead of the publication of the Leveson report.

The actor has launched a spirited defence of the Hacked Off campaign which he fronts in the Spectator magazine, claiming he is not out to muzzle the press and would close down the lobby group if he “detected even a bat’s squeak of genuine threat to public interest journalism”.

However, in another Spectator comment piece published online on Thursday, former Daily Mail and Daily Express political journalist turned PR Kirsty Walker made the opposite case, warning of the “chilling effects” Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry is already having on newsrooms.

The academics, including the former director of global news at the BBC Richard Sambrook and the corporation’s former head of news Ian Hargreaves, both now at Cardiff University, said in a letter published in Thursday’s Financial Times that proposals for a new press watchdog made by newspaper editors would merely extend the life of the discredited Press Complaints Commission.

In the Spectator, Grant said he would even back Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, who caused a furore at the Leveson inquiry after accusing the actor of spreading “mendacious smears”, over his right to be “impertinent, spiky, nosey and unfawning to power or success or wealth”. “[The press] have always pissed people off, as they should,” he added.

But he said the press are “the Goliath”, part of the establishment that has “effectively run the country for the past 40 years”.

Grant said he would support Leveson if he were to recommend a new press regulator, independent of the industry and government, with minimum statutory underpinning.

“What I (and Hacked Off) campaign for is only this: that the press should obey the law and comply consistently with a fair and decent code of practice,” he added.

“If we detected even a bat’s squeak of genuine threat to public interest journalism we would pack it in. In fact, we also campaign for public interest defences in law for journalists in libel, bribery and other cases. We want more investigative journalism, not less. We want journalists to be free to speak their minds, unconstrained by their corporate masters. That’s why we share platforms with the NUJ.”

Grant’s Spectator article was published on the same day that 26 academics including professor James Currant of Goldsmiths and Steven Barnett of the University of Westminster came together to reject proposals put forward by newspaper editors and executives, who oppose statutory underpinning for a new press regulator.

The academics dismissed the proposals as “an attempt to perpetuate self-regulation by editors, an approach that has been shown over nearly 60 years to have failed both journalists and newspaper readers”.

The proposals were made by Lord Black, Telegraph Media Group executive director and the chairman of the Press Standards Board of Finance, the body that funds the Press Complaints Commission, at the Leveson inquiry after consultation with all newspaper groups including the Guardian. Black’s plan calls for a new body which has the power to investigate newspapers and impose fines but editors would still be involved in the watchdog.

Walker, who now works for PR agency iNHouse Communications, wrote in the Spectator that the mere prospect of Leveson’s report, which will offer the government recommendations on the future of press regulation, had already encouraged “the rich, the powerful, the venal and the pompous to intimidate journalists and frighten papers into not covering stories”.

“This is the judge who read a 200-word article in the Times about how The Thick of It was planning to satirise him in one episode – and promptly asked the editor of that paper whether it was ‘appropriate’ for him to run the piece. It is all too easy to guess what a judge with such an attitude to newspapers will do for press freedom,” Walker said.

The academics’ letter and Grant and Walker’s interventions marks a stepping up of the lobbying ahead of the publication of the Leveson report, now expected in the last week of November.

Ten days ago the Newspaper Society launched a Free Speech Network to campaign against statutory regulation. Tim Luckhurst, journalism professor at Kent university, said at the launch that “officially regulated press” would “spell the slow, painful death of a raucous, audacious and impertinent press”.

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