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The bonfire of the vanities: the Tabloid Press and the PCC – Tim Lowles

Today David Cameron has called for a new independent regulatory body to oversee the media thus sounding the death knell for the PCC.  This is an interesting contrast to his view – only two months ago – that it was the PCC that there was “still more to be done through the Press Complaints Commission”.  Things have moved very quickly this week.  The Labour leader Ed Miliband had called the PCC a “toothless poodle”.  These sentiments may have been expressed on many occasions on this blog, suddenly it is the Prime Minister and Leader of the Labour Party dancing to the same tune.

The demise of the News of the World is by far the most spectacular of this week’s media events and it’s difficult to think of anything within this sector that stands in comparison.  Of its many consequences, the scandal has dragged the PCC down with the News of the World but it is not the only event this week that demonstrates how hopeless the PCC had become.   In addition to phone hacking; contempt proceedings and another privacy action illustrate just how far the regulator had failed to regulate, and its catastrophic consequences.

Phone Hacking

This week saw new lows reached every day with revelations that phone hacking at the News of the World extended to the families of Milly Dowler, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, the 7/7 terror attack and Iraq war victims.

Such is the disgracefulness of the Guardian’s allegations that even the Prime Minister couldn’t avoid condemning the papers behaviour and accepted calls for a public inquiry.

Also, for the first time in some time, the Sun and other News International publications realised they couldn’t avoid reporting on the goings on at its sister paper in Wapping and had little choice but to join the ground swell of repulsion that spread through the country.

The parent company of the News of the World, News Group Newspapers Limited, will now have to deal with a crisis in which it is clear (i) the number of victims could exceed 4,000; (ii) hacking took place as early as 2002 (and possibly 2000 if Colin Stagg is correct); (iii) hacking took place under the editorship of Rebekah Brooks; and (iv) hacking as a means of obtaining stories was not reserved for celebrity gossip but cut across sensitive police investigations and times of intense personal grief.

The fact that the News of the World will no longer exist after Sunday does not change any of the above and should not dampen the public’s appetite to know what went on, especially as those in charge during the period in question, are holding on to senior executive roles within News International. Cameron’s announcement of a Judge led inquiry is to be welcomed but only if it is put in place speedily and with powers to seize all relevant papers now, before any ‘editing’ is applied as a result of the papers closure.

Rebekah Brooks’ statement as to News International’s current investigations on Tuesday would have been little comfort to the families of the three murdered girls nine years after the horrific events they had to endure. Her statement now rings hollow in light of the admissions made by James Murdoch as to the lack of control the senior executives had over the News of the World. Admissions as to misleading Parliament and the Police are all the more worrying. That Brooks should retain any role in the organisation will no doubt seem galling to the 200 employees who are to pay for the goings on under her editorship and that of Andy Coulson. As Hugh Grant has said “Asking Rebekah Brooks to clean up News International is like asking Hitler to reform the Nazi Party”.

The PCC, who undertook an inquiry into phone hacking, have been shown to be completely shambolic (perhaps an understatement). The speed in which they were  willing to accept everything the News of the World told them and at the same time castigate the Guardian for pursuing its investigations was appalling. The grilling given by Andrew Neil to Baroness Buscombe, and her subsequent back tracking, only serves to highlight the uncomfortable position the PCC found itself. Well might Baroness Buscombe be angry given how her professional reputation must now be tarnished, but it was the PCC’s decision to side with the News of the World in light of growing calls for a proper investigation.

Despite her best protestations are we to believe that the PCC was not able to do anything to regulate the News of the World’s activities or do so in the future given her own admission that she was “lied” to by the paper? The fact that she accepted what they said in the first place, without seeking to question their activities, is a testament to the PCC’s failings.

It will be for Baroness Buscombe and, perhaps more interestingly, Sir Christopher Meyer to explain to an inquiry the PCC’s failings on phone hacking.  The PCC investigation, that Meyer explained to Parliament on 24 March 2009 went “deeply and very forensically” into what went on after the Goodman conviction, has always been laughable. The fact is what they did was worse than nothing at all.  The consequences of this position are now being realised.

Contempt

Given the furore surrounding the recent phone hacking allegations, the Sun and the Daily Mirror have got off very lightly as a result of its outing to Court No. 4 at the Royal Courts of Justice earlier this week. On the other hand, even if the phone hacking revelation had not arisen, they were no doubt safe in the knowledge that newspapers don’t report on stories where other newspapers get in trouble and which ultimately might effect them.

The Attorney General called for a prison sentence or other appropriate penalty in respect of the two newspapers’ reporting of the investigation into the killing of Joanna Yeates and the subsequent finger pointing at Chris Jefferies. By the time 2011 came around he was already guilty in the eyes of a number of papers (not just the Sun and the Mirror) despite warnings given by the Attorney General.

What has been the PCC’s response to this issue? Nothing.   The judgment will now be more fuel to the bonfire of press regulation.

Privacy

Meanwhile in Court 13 earlier this week Rio Ferdinand, the only ‘celebrity’ involved in the week’s stories was defending himself against allegations made in the Sunday Mirror over an alleged affair with an old girlfriend.

In this case the Sunday Mirror failed to give Ferdinand a chance to respond to the allegations and instead published the article relying solely upon the story of a woman who had just been paid £16,000 to spill the beans. The Sunday Mirror say the story was in the public interest as a result of the actions of John Terry, the previous England captain, who had been sacked only months before as a result of similar allegations. (For a neutral report of proceedings so far see here. For the Sun’s take on the same events see here.)

In fact this would appear to be another attempt by the tabloid press to avoid the possibility of defending an application for an injunction by refusing to give prior notification, an issue well covered on this blog.

What do the PCC do in such instances? Nothing.  What did they do in other outrageous examples of privacy invasions? Nothing.

What did they do to the Senior Reporter of the News of the World (Neville Thurlbeck, recently arrested on suspicion of phone hacking), was accused of blackmailing two women with the threat of revealing their identities? Nothing. This despite Mr Justice Eady saying:

 “The real problem, so far as Mr Thurlbeck is concerned, is that these inconsistencies demonstrate that his “best recollection” is so erratic and changeable that it would not be safe to place unqualified reliance on his evidence…

 The PCC

In relation to phone hacking in particular the PCC has been unconscionably quiet since 2009 refusing to stick its head above the parapet and rebuke those they are supposed to regulate. Perhaps this is because of the absurd conflict of interests that exists in the majority of those who sit on the Commission or Editor’s Code of Practice Committee.

Many believe that whilst the PCC was meant to regulate the press its real ambit, from its members, was to be seen to regulate the press while allowing them to get on with their business as usual. With the closure of the News of the Word it has spectacularly failed in both.

Time and time again the PCC has been shown to be powerless and ill equipped to deal with an industry who were willing to disregard everything in order to get something worth writing about. An industry that has admitted that it subsequently lied about its actions, to Parliament, to the Courts and to the public.

We should not be fooled into thinking that the PCC failed to regulate the News of the World alone. Numerous papers (see for instance the report into Operation Motorman, another spectacular PCC failure) have sought to hide behind the PCC in times of trouble. This safety blanket will now be removed, and it is about time.

Tim Lowles is an associate at Collyer Bristow.

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Scott

    Thanks for that telling review of events, but a measure of circumspection is surely in order here on the bigger picture. While the phone hacking affair has exposed systemic weaknesses with the PCC model of self-regulation, and while it has always been liable to a measure of criticism on account of its constitutional structure (drawing in PressBoF and the Editors’ Code Committee) it is inaccurate and inappropriate to suggest that its performance has been abject across its 20 year history. There is no question that its routine business has been performed increasingly well in recent times. Moreover, the fact that the Press has been free to drink in the last chance saloon for so long indicates that its general performance has been politically acceptable. And, in great contrast to legal alternatives, it is at least cheap and hence open to all-comers.

    I personally am no great advocate of the PCC regime (and don’t cavil at the criticism of the regime offered, for example, by the Media Standards Trust), but – credit where credit is due – as its recent survey evidence suggests it has been doing something right. In the one area that I have personally undertaken sustained research regarding the PCC regime – re clause 4 and pre-emptive intervention on harassment – the PCC was doing what it promised while also being clear about the limitations of what it could achieve. The fact that it is only in recent times, and on a vanishingly small number of occasions, that the Protection from Harassment Act has been used in the context of paparazzi/journalistic conduct speaks to this relative success.

    While welcoming the move to review how best an effective scheme of press regulation can be designed and lamenting the failure of all regulation – and in particular, let us not forget, the police – in respect of phone hacking, let’s not jump on the grave of the PCC too quickly or too heavily.

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