"Statutory underpinning" may be required to bolster the authority of a revived press complaints commission, the culture secretary has suggested.
Appearing before a parliamentary select committee on privacy and injunctions, Jeremy Hunt went further than before in setting out a regulatory framework for the media which the government could support in future.
The two-and-a-half hour session – which also heard evidence from the justice secretary, Ken Clarke, and the attorney general, Dominic Grieve – is part of an inquiry launched in the aftermath of the row over super-injunctions. Some of its scrutiny is now overlapping the Leveson inquiry into press standards.
Hunt said it should never be a question of any government directly regulating the press or what it chooses to publish. "We would like to continue with a light-touch approach but it does have to command the confidence of the public after a very, very bad period," he said.
"The reason that the prime minister and I have hesitated to say that we want to keep self-regulation is because self-regulation is very often characterised as something which is very similar to the current system and clearly some very significant failings have emerged on that.
"So what we are looking for is the industry to come up with a structure that will have [widespread] confidence and has proper sanction-making powers," he explained."There's a difference between statutory regulation of content – which no one wants and which parliament would resist – and giving statutory underpinning to a body that is run" by an independent body.
The culture secretary compared it with the role of the disciplinary committee of the General Medical Council. Asked about how newspapers might be encouraged to participate, he endorsed a suggestion made by the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, that only those participating would be legally defined as newspapers and therefore entitled to zero rating for VAT.
Both Hunt and Clarke said that the problem in upholding responsible media reporting was more a matter of enforcement that a need to draft new laws on privacy.
"When it comes to breaches of privacy online," Hunt said, "very often the issue is not the law which applies equally online and offline …" but ensuring existing regulations are observed.
On privacy legislation, Clarke was even more blunt. "No one has so far made a clear case for a new law," he told the joint Commons and Lords committee. There could be an argument for minor changes around the edges, he added, where there was no existing public interest defence for investigative journalists to uncover "monster frauds".
But the provision already exists for prosecution to go ahead only if they are in the public interest. "There could well be a case where a greater good has been served."
Whether online media should be subject to the same controls as traditional newspapers and broadcasters was a more difficult question. Asked by Lords Dobbs whether he wrote a blog, Ken Clarke declared: "I am certainly not a blogger. Quite a large proportion of them are nuts and extremists – with the honourable exception of the culture secretary."
Grieve, said that bloggers and tweeters are subject to the laws of libel and contempt like anybody else and were "no different from a person who spreads tittle tattle at a dinner party conversation".
He confirmed that he had considered taking action against bloggers for contempt of court proceedings. "There have been instances where bloggers have been rung up by the police and told that they should stop doing what they are doing – and they have stopped immediately."