It has not been a good few months for the Press Complaints Commission. Its Chairman, Baroness Buscombe, has been successfully sued for libel. Its continuing refusal to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act (as indicated by its absence from the recent statement of the Ministry of Justice on this issue) shows that it is still as committed as ever to a lack of transparency about its procedures and activities.
The PCC’s failure as an effective regulator was also recently illustrated by its failure to procure a correction on the front page of the Sun for the fictional story about Coronation Street being threatened Al Qaeda. A truly independent regulator would ask: since front page stories are read by millions who never buy the newspaper, where else should such a correction go but on the front page? However, the PCC has a complete inability to adjudicate complaints about front page stories in a manner consistent with the editorial decisions that put them there in the first place. Not much comfort then that a change in the rules starting this month requires the PCC to approve the prominence of corrections before publication when it considers that front page stories can be corrected by glorified postage stamps on page two. Perhaps if the PCC were subject to the FOIA, we would learn why it has such an aversion to front page corrections.
Now five national titles that regularly breach the PCC Code (Express, Sunday Express, Daily Star, Star on Sunday and OK! Magazine) have all been ejected from the PCC’s jurisdiction because of their failure to pay their subs to Presbof, which finances the PCC and provides its fig leaf of independence. By a remarkable co-incidence, Presbof’s Chairman (Lord Black) was previously a director of the PCC, then worked at the Telegraph, and now combines his role at Presbof with being Executive Director of the Telegraph Media Group. No danger of any suggestion of incest, lack of independence or jobs for the press boys then in this regulator. It is difficult however not to sympathise at such times with the PCC’s embattled current director, the universally liked and fair-minded Stig Abell, in his game efforts to make a fatally flawed regulator work.
It is also hard to see how this decision is in Northern & Shell’s own interests. The PCC hails its role in keeping newspapers out of expensive litigation. Yet the steady stream of those who have issues with the content of Northern & Shell titles will now have no option but to seek assistance from the courts should efforts to persuade the relevant editors that inappropriate copy has been published fall on deaf ears.
Although Northern & Shell appears not to realise it, the PCC is the press’ most potent ally in avoiding accountability for its actions. It also provides a justification – albeit a disingenuous one – for the further relaxation of the libel laws by providing (it is said) a “Fast, Free [and] Fair” alternative to costly and lengthy litigation. Unfortunately, as any practitioner acting for claimants will tell you, it is often only the threat of litigation which prevails on newspapers to comply with their obligations under the PCC Code because of the PCC’s failure to do so.
While substantial titles like Northern & Shell’s are outside the PCC system and therefore no longer subject to any form of regulation, the need for an effective legal alternative is very hard to deny. The Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has said that this decision by Northern & Shell raised the possibility of statutory regulation replacing the self-regulating PCC;
“I would think the last thing [Richard Desmond, the owner of Northern & Shell] would want is statutory regulation and, by undermining the system of self-regulation, he risks bringing that a step closer. I think it was a curious and regrettable decision.“
It would be such a decision if anyone believed that MPs had the courage to stand up to opulently remunerated behemoths like Lord Dacre and Rupert Murdoch and the powerful empires they command, and establish a truly independent and effective system for the regulation of the press.