A number of recent stories in and about the press have once again, focused attention on the role of the Press Complaints Commission (“PCC”) as the “independent regulator” of the print media. There is the The “News of the World” phone hacking story and the shocking treatment of Wayne Rooney and William Hague (see our posts here and here). There are also the recent “privacy injunctions” which, as the Liberal Democrat Voice points out, also suggest that the regime regulating privacy is not working. In relation to the hacking story, the PCC Watch Blog concludes that “The PCC is not equipped to deal with phone hacking and not constituted to act as a regulator”.
As the then director of the PCC Tim Toulmin, told the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport:
“We are a complaints body; we are not statutory; we are like an ombudsman, really. People want us to be more like a general regulator with statutory powers and so on. That is a separate argument; the fact is we are not that body”.
There is a strong argument that, as a complaints body, the PCC cannot deal with the general issues about the way in which the press obtains and publishes information. What is needed is a regulator.
A similar point is made in an article in the Guardian this week, by Professor Brian Cathcart. He was the specialist adviser to the Select Committee for its inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel. His article asks the question “Is the time ripe for statutory regulation of the media?” He draws attention to various problems with the press over recent times
“Besides the outrage of phone hacking we have had the Max Mosley case, where the “journalism” of the News of the World was exposed in court as an offence against ethical standards. In the McCann case virtually the entire tabloid press behaved, over almost a whole year, with a wanton disregard for truth, fairness and justice”.
He suggests that there are three alternatives: leave things as they are; get the industry to regulate itself effectively or statutory regulation. The first is the present, unacceptable, situation and the second has failed for twenty years. The third option remains.
“Thanks largely to the efforts of the press itself, this idea has long been taboo, even though journalism at the BBC and on commercial television is already regulated. But maybe, with the press in such a state and the public and politicians so dissatisfied, the time is ripe to start designing an effective statutory regulatory body, one which is as independent as possible of government and of the press industry“.
We suggest that there is a strong argument in favour of this third alternative. The law is a blunt (and very expensive) instrument for dealing with inaccurate or intrusive stories. An effective regulator with statutory powers could deal with these matters in a way which recognizes the freedom of the press to investigate and publish public interest stories whilst, at the same time, protecting the rights of the public.
Broadcasters have their statutory regulator – OFCOM. It cannot seriously be suggested that this has led to state control or improper political interference with the broadcast media. It means that broadcasters consistently act more responsibly than the press and are rarely the subject of libel or privacy claims. Proper statutory regulation would have the same effect on newspapers and magazines. The time has come to give serious consideration to the establishment of an independent statutory regulator for the print media – OFPRESS. Professor Cathcart’s question should have an affirmative answer.