LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's press has a good chance of avoiding new legislation to curb its freedom despite a phone-hacking scandal that shocked politicians and the public, David Hunt, who has a key role in reforming press regulation, said on Thursday.
Hunt told Reuters he was confident that compliance with a code of ethics could be enforced by commercial contracts voluntarily signed by Britain's newspaper and magazine owners, as could the power to impose fines for breaking the code.
The present model of self-regulation is widely considered to be broken after failing to prevent journalists at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World from systematically hacking into the voicemails of actors, ministers and murder victims.
Last week, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) confirmed it was disbanding, ending 59 years of self-regulation. Hunt, its chairman, wants to establish a more powerful body to replace the PCC without resorting to legislation.
"I'm wholly against any statutory regulation of the press," he said during a visit to Reuters' offices in London. "Parliament should not be called on to set the standards."
Hunt feared that Britain's lawmakers would use the opportunity of any new legislation concerning the press to seek to control an industry often critical of politicians to the extent of wrecking careers.
A 2009 probe by the Daily Telegraph into an abuse of expense claims by members of parliament is still fresh in the minds of many lawmakers, and even a bill that was neutral at the drafting stage could emerge quite differently after multiple amendments.
Whether Hunt's ideas become reality depends in part on the findings of an inquiry into media ethics led by judge Brian Leveson, which was hastily set up by Prime Minister David Cameron at the height of the phone-hacking scandal last July.
Cameron, who has been tainted by hiring ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his spokesman, demanded the inquiry just before an emergency debate in parliament called by the opposition Labour Party.
The following day, Coulson - who had by that time resigned over the phone-hacking affair without admitting guilt - was arrested for his suspected part in it.
This week, Leveson said it should not be assumed that he would accept Hunt's recommendations, although he encouraged him to continue trying to build a consensus among Britain's diverse press on how regulation should work.
The PCC has suffered not only from a lack of real power but also the strong and often conflicting personalities of the media owners who are its members, some of whom walked out or refused to participate.
"This encouragement should not be taken as endorsement, let alone agreement," Leveson said in unprompted remarks at the start of Monday's hearings.
"I have raised a number of questions and do not yet know the answer to them," added Leveson, who attended the same school as Hunt in northern England.
Hunt said on Thursday he was not surprised by Leveson's stance. "Those are questions I'm addressing and when I give evidence again to Lord Leveson I hope to have at least some of the answers to those questions," he said.
In earlier testimony to the Leveson Inquiry, Hunt set out a vision of a two-pronged regulatory body, with one part dealing with complaints and the other enforcing compliance, unlike the PCC, which only dealt with complaints.
Leveson has also mooted the idea of a third arm, which would provide arbitration services as an alternative to expensive libel actions and could even be made compulsory.
Hunt has for the moment built a broad consensus in an industry anxious to avoid a legal clampdown, although Leveson has raised concerns that that consensus would fall apart once the danger had passed.
Hunt proposes to sign up newspaper and magazine owners on five-year, rolling contracts to prevent the kind of walkouts suffered at the PCC.
Hunt said he recognised it would be hard to extract more from Britain's hard-up press than the PCC, which had a budget of just under 2 million pounds.
Britain's newspaper industry is struggling with a long-term decline in readership as readers migrate online, as well as a weak economy that has hit advertising budgets.
"What I have in mind is to produce a budget in the reasonably near future," said Hunt.
"I'm seeking not to pretend that there is a substantial amount of resource available but at the same time I want a budget which will reflect the job that has to be done."
Hunt will not automatically lead anybody that may replace the PCC and said he would likely apply for the job. "I won't walk away," he said.
(Additional reporting by Paul Sandle)