What should be done with the PCC?

by Stephen Tall on November 23, 2009

That’s the question asked in today’s Media Guardian, following the controversies associated with the Press Complaints Commission in the last month.

First, there was the PCC’s ruling that the Daily Mail didn’t owe Iain Dale an apology for branding him ‘overtly gay’. Then there were the record-breaking 22,000 complaints submitted to the PCC following the Daily Mail’s publication of a snide piece by Jan Moir attacking Boyzone singer Stephen Gately’s lifestyle and implying it contributed to his death.

And then the PCC’s new Chair, Baroness Buscombe, delivered a lacklustre and confused address to the Society of Editors, before setting any number of hares running by suggesting the PCC might have a role in regulating blogging.

Finally, the Guardian’s editor Alan Rushbridger quit the PCC’s oddly named Code Committee after the regulator’s pusillanimous response into allegations of illegal phone hacking by a number of tabloid newspapers.

All in all, a busy month for the PCC.

The Guardian columnist Roy Greenslade wrote last week about the intrinsic tensions in the PCC’s role: a self-regulatory body, funded by the media itself, and yet supposed to call its paymasters to account with no legislative authority:

… throughout the commission’s 18-year history I have witnessed several such storms blow up and then gradually blow themselves out. The pressure for radical change always seems to be irresistible but, in practice, very little changes. Why? Because within the industry, almost everyone – publishers, editors and commentators – accepts the reality of the PCC’s imperfections. They know it is a toothless watchdog (even as editors feign alarm at its “censures”). They know it is a fig-leaf.

But they also know that to give it teeth – by giving it the power to fine papers or demand the firing of offending journalists and editors – would never be approved within the industry. They are also terrified of any statutory alternative, which would bog papers down in endless legal quagmires and be a genuine restriction of press freedom. (No wonder so many lawyers want to see the PCC abolished).

In other words, the PCC – for all its faults – is regarded as the least worst form of self-regulation. Then again, to refer to it as a regulator is – in its current state – entirely wrong. It is, as everyone knows and it admits itself, really a mediator. So, in future, I may well refer to it in that form, as press self-mediation.

Roy also suggests areas for reform which could improve the PCC in its current set-up:

greater transparency; a greater willingness to adjudicate (and a more coherent consistency of rulings); greater powers to demand the placing of apologies, corrections and clarifications; greater willingness to take up third-party complaints; special powers, to be used sparingly, to investigate important matters (such as the phone-hacking scandal); and a larger budget to provide for the extra work involved in doing a better job.

But he holds out little hope of this happening “because the ethos of the PCC is about conflict resolution and not punishment”.

So, what do LDV readers think could be done about the PCC?

Should we accept that its role as regulator is toothless – though it is often (though by no means always) an effective mediator – and simply try and improve what we have?

Or should we wise-up and recognise that no self-regulatory body in such a competitive market can ever be truly effective, and either scrap it entirely and let the lawyers do their worst – or replace it with a legislated body with legal powers, no matter what signals that will send out about press freedom?

Over to you …