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Opinion: “The ‘Benefits’ of Press Self-Regulation” – Julian Petley

Earlier this week, we published a post by Julian Petley which argued that the Press Complaints Comission was not fit for purpose, and that what is required is an effective system of press regulation devised from scratch. The PCC subsequently published a response to that article, which can be found on their website. Here, Professor Petley provides his reply to the PCC.

Whilst I’m glad that the PCC’s Jonathan Collett found my article a ‘lively read’, his response reminded me both of perusing one of the Commission’s Annual Reviews (a yearly treat for me) and receiving a reply to one of my complaints (fortunately a less frequent occurrence). The former because it’s largely a catalogue of the PCC’s achievements (understandable, if unconvincing), and the latter because for the most part it fails to engage with the substantive issues which I raised.

Jonathan says that I’m ‘obviously wrong to try to characterise the PCC as a mediator and not a regulator’, but ignores the rather inconvenient fact that, in doing so, I was simply echoing the sentiments of its erstwhile Chairman and Director, not to mention quoting from the Commission’s own website.  If he means is that the PCC is not only a mediator, I’m perfectly happy to acknowledge that the PCC frequently does an excellent job in dissipating press scrums and other forms of harassment (particularly when they involve ordinary people as opposed to publicity-seeking celebrities). However, when it comes to the other activities which Jonathan mentions, the record is far less positive.

For instance – negotiating prominent apologies in national papers. Take the following example.  On 29 September 2008 the Star ran a front page story headed ‘Peaches: Spend the Night with Me for £5k’ which stated that ‘glamour girl Peaches Geldof is bagging thousands of pounds a night from people desperate for her company …. Peaches and her girlie pals rake in the mega-bucks fees for providing their services at A-list parties’. The article, which clearly implies that Peaches was selling sexual services, was published by the paper in the knowledge that it was untrue. After Peaches had complained to the PCC the paper agreed to print a retraction, but refused to do so on the front page because ‘the subject matter of the apology and of the complaint is not proportionate with a front page apology. The headline on page one was a taster for the article as a whole, which appeared on page 5’. A very small apology, about 30 cm2, thus appeared on page 2. The PCC meekly endorsed the Star’s refusal on the grounds that ‘while the front page may have been open to a certain interpretation, it did not contain any specific claims about the “services” offered by the complainant’. Subsequently Peaches went to court and won substantial damages against the Star, whose owner, Richard Desmond, has since withdrawn both the Express and the Star from the PCC.

This story (and others like it) sums up a great deal of what is wrong with the PCC. No doubt it did its best for Peaches in the circumstances, but it lacks sufficient sanctions to be able to punish effectively those who breach its Code, which is precisely why Peaches and others wronged by the press have turned to the adversarial system of which the PCC is so frequently dismissive. And if owners such as Desmond can with impunity simply put up two fingers to the whole system, there is, in the last instance, nothing that the Commission can do about it. It needs to be stressed that there is nothing wrong with the PCC Code itself (except that it shouldn’t be in the hands of practising editors, and its conception of the ‘public interest’ is rather more limited than that of the BBC or Ofcom), rather it is the inability of the PCC to enforce it even adequately which is the real problem (and which, as I have suggested, is not its fault but that of the papers which finance it).

Let’s just remind ourselves of what an inadequately regulated press is capable of doing. In October 2008, Express Newspapers agreed to pay £375,000 in libel damages to the so-called ‘Tapas Seven’, the friends of Kate and Gerry McCann who were with the couple in Portugal when Madeleine McCann disappeared. The previous July former suspect Robert Murat and two associates, Michaela Walczuch and Sergey Malinka, accepted between them £800,000 in damages from the Daily and Sunday Express, the Daily Star, the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror, the Daily Record, Metro, the London Evening Standard, the Daily Mail, the Sun and the News of the World. And four months before that, Express Newspapers had paid £550,000 to Kate and Gerry McCann, who had sued over more than 100 stories about them in the group’s four titles, some of which were grossly defamatory. And no doubt they could have sued other papers with equal success too. Brian Cathcart (writing before hackgate) quite rightly called this ‘the greatest scandal in our news media in at least a decade’, a seemingly endless, unstoppable outpouring of the most despicable stories imaginable containing allegations which the papers concerned were finally forced to admit were entirely without foundation – allegations which could hardly have been graver, since they included lying to the police, paedophile activities and involvement in the abduction of Madeleine herself. And yet, as Brian says,

‘not one editor and, so far as I know, not one reporter has lost his or her job or even faced formal reprimand as a result of the McCann coverage. There has been no serious inquest in the industry and no organised attempt to establish what went wrong, while no measures have been taken to prevent a repetition. Where there have been consequences, as with the Tapas Seven, they have come from outside and been reported to the public with the most grudging economy’.

What appeared in print – purely to sell newspapers – involved a total disregard for not only ethical standards but even the most basic of journalistic standards: an absolutely classic example of the ‘if we can sell it we’ll tell it’ attitude castigated by Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News. And as for the PCC Code, Clause 1 (1) of which states ‘The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information’, it might as well not have existed. The Commission did in fact help to dissipate some of the press scrums around the McCanns, for which it certainly deserves credit, but although such debased ‘journalism’ was shown to be absolutely routine across large swathes of the British press, this whole ghastly affair barely merits a mention in its 2008 Review. And, in its aftermath, the PCC appears do have done absolutely nothing to analyse the reasons for this complete abrogation of journalistic standards nor to criticise those responsible for it, with the result that the whole grotesque pantomime was played out yet again, admittedly on a smaller scale, when sections of the press libelled Chris Jeffries in the Joanna Yates murder case, following this up with breaches of the law of contempt so basic that any first year student of media law would have seen them coming a mile off.

If this kind of journalism cannot be stopped by the ‘non-adversarial, responsive and adaptive system that self-regulation has brought’, the sooner that something else is put in its place, the better for all of us.

Julian Petley is Professor of Screen Media and Journalism at Brunel University.

This post originally appeared on the New Left Project website and is reproduced with permission and thanks.

1 Comment

  1. Press Complaints Commission

    Again another spirited effort from Julian. If we put aside the hyperbole and the lack of context (and his merging of the role of the PCC, and of civil/criminal law), perhaps we can agree with Julian’s intentions at least.
    Ultimately, I believe the Leveson Inquiry will need to take a balanced and objective look at what has worked in press regulation, and what needs to be added to the present system. An evidence-led approach will surely recognise the public service the PCC provides, the thousands of people who declare that they are happy with the service they receive as a result of their complaints and the change for the better in standards the PCC has brought about in areas like mental health, suicide reporting and reporting on refugees and asylum seekers. It will also make clear what more should be done.

    Even those with a world-view like Julian Petley and Brian Cathcart can surely acknowledge that it is to the benefit of society as a whole that we build a consensus to deliver an improved non statutory and effective regulatory framework building on the valuable complaints work; the pre-publication intervention; the anti-harassment service and the training the PCC presently provides. Clearly everything will be up for grabs for the reformed body in terms of issues like independence, sanctions and investigative powers, but it would be folly indeed to throw away proven expertise, knowledge and case law for the sake of point scoring. Perhaps the challenge for everybody involved is to provide calm counsel, hard evidence and realistic solutions for the future. Surely we can all agree on that?

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