Newspaper freedom could be curtailed if parliament were allowed to pass new laws to police the industry, the head of the Press Complaints Commission said on Tuesday, calling for an improved form of self regulation.

David Hunt, a former government minister, made an impassioned defence of the freedom of the press when he appeared before the Leveson inquiry launched as a result of the News of the World phone hacking scandal.

Hunt, appointed last October to head a body derided as toothless for its response to the hacking scandal set out his plans to strengthen the PCC.

It should be given the power to fine newspapers who breached a new set of standards, Hunt said. Each publication should name a senior individual to take personal responsibility for ensuring compliance with PCC rules under a new contractual arrangement.

I sense there is a willingness to accept a fresh start and a new body, Hunt said, saying that Northern & Shell, publisher of the Daily Express and Daily Star tabloids, had indicated it was willing to sign up.

The publisher does not participate in the PCC after a series of disputes.

Inquiry head Brian Leveson asked Hunt if he believed that parliament might rein in the press if given the power to create a new statutory regulator.

Yes and they have told me so, many of them, in both houses, said Hunt, a former MP who now sits in the upper House of Lords.

The liberty of the press is the birthright of a Briton, Hunt said, quoting 18th century English radical John Wilkes.

Hunt, who replaced Peta Buscombe who resigned during the outcry over phone hacking last year, said that he felt the PCC had never been given the tools to do an adequate job.

The PCC has been unfairly criticised for failing to exercise powers it never had in the first place, he said.

(Reporting by Keith Weir)