What next for the PCC? – Brian Cathcart

23 07 2013

freefastfairThe Press Complaints Commission (“PCC”) still exists. It still has a chair, Lord Hunt, and a panel of Commissioners, and it still deals with complaints from the public. It will presumably go on doing so until its bosses, the proprietors assembled in PressBoF, turn off the tap of money.

What is it doing about the future, and what should it do? Lord Hunt, a former Conservative Cabinet minister, continues to say that he is working on a replacement body, but his efforts appear to have been overtaken by PressBoF’s own.

This month the proprietors announced their plans for a new self-regulator to be called the Independent Press Standards Organisation, or IPSO. As this analysis shows, IPSO is a cosmetically-altered rehash of the Hunt-Black plan, which was rejected by both Lord Justice Leveson and the Prime Minister as falling far short of the change that circumstances demand.

From the PCC’s point of view, IPSO should be especially hard to swallow.

The Leveson Report had good words to say about the PCC, indeed the judge clearly thought that the organisation was more victim than perpetrator in the regulatory disaster of recent years. The staff and directors were praised for their efforts to help the public within the constraints of the code and their limited powers, and the blame for the organisation’s failure was laid squarely at the door of PressBoF.

As the report made plain, PressBoF owned and ran the PCC. It held the purse strings, appointed the chair and vetted the Commissioners. It also controlled the PCC’s articles of association and set limits on its powers, and it was a PressBoF committee of handpicked editors who wrote the code of standards that the PCC was supposed to enforce. (Former PCC officials had confirmed this picture in evidence to the inquiry.)

Damningly, the judge concluded (page 1521) that PressBoF had used its power to starve the PCC of resources to the point where it could not fulfil even its limited remit. Overall, he declared (page 1579):

‘It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the self-regulatory system was run for the benefit of the press not of the public.’

Now PressBoF has designed IPSO to be a new PCC, once again under the thumb of the big proprietors, what should the PCC do?

Endorsing IPSO would reinforce the perception that the PCC is nothing more than a creature of PressBoF, always obeying its orders. But it’s worse than that, for to endorse IPSO would be like saying that Leveson was wrong in his diagnosis of the true problem of the PCC. It would be like saying that the failure of the PCC to meet the needs of the public and to uphold press standards was not the fault of PressBoF after all, but was the responsibility of the organisation itself.

Surely it is better for the PCC to say: ‘No, this is not the way to proceed. The IPSO model was tried before and we were the victims of it. We ended up widely distrusted because the proprietors would not let us do a decent job. We can’t endorse a repetition of that mistake.

Lord Hunt himself also appears to be in a delicate position. He is, after all, a parliamentarian of 37 years’ standing – as an MP, as a senior minister and as a working peer. He has watched as every single party in Parliament approved the cross-party Royal Charter of 18 March. He has personally witnessed the overwhelming support for genuine Leveson-based reform in the House of Lords, including on his own party’s benches. And he has heard enough to know that none of this is driven by a desire to censor, but rather to protect the public while also protecting press freedom.

He has often said that he accepted the job of PCC chair only with a view to bringing real, meaningful change, and he has agreed with Leveson that the PCC has never functioned as a regulator and cannot be called one.

Is he ready to accept IPSO, which certainly doesn’t bring meaningful change, and whose constitution will preserve the total dominance of PressBoF, albeit renamed as the Regulatory Finance Committee? Or is he in a strong and independent enough position to explain to the more sensible heads in the press that bringing on a constitutional clash with Parliament is not in their interests and could rebound on them badly?

The PCC, like the rest of the country, has a choice between regulation that serves the industry, as in the past, and regulation that serves the public, as recommended by Leveson.

It has expertise. Some of its work was praised by the judge. Would it not be best for the PCC to put that expertise to good use by working with the public and with level-headed parts of the press to create a new self-regulator that meets the Leveson criteria and can command public support in the future?

Brian Cathcart is Executive Director, Hacked Off


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