The motion on the Press Complaints Commission which has been selected for debate at the Liberal Democrat conference is concerning. It contains a number of inaccuracies and appears to be based on several false premises. It is especially disappointing because the philosophy behind the PCC and its independent self-regulation of the newspaper and magazine industry is entirely in tune with the Liberal tradition.
The PCC exists to protect freedom of expression, while upholding standards by ruling on strict criteria of inaccuracy, intrusion, harassment (and so on), and by establishing case law and the acceptable boundaries of practice. It provides a public service which is easily accessible, free to use and which speedily resolves disputes. It is generally accepted that self-regulation is philosophically the right way to tackle the difficult cases which will impact on freedom of expression. Statutory regulation would be too heavy handed; anarchy too dangerous.
Of course, we are committed to making the PCC better. Indeed, last month an independent report was published concerning the governance of the PCC, and has provided us with recommendations for improvement which we are currently taking forward.
The thrust of the Conference motion for debate is that the PCC should impose financial sanctions. The independent governance review concluded that “the introduction of fines would not benefit the system”. The PCC has a clear range of existing sanctions and as the Code of Practice is written into the majority of journalists’ contracts, PCC censure can lead directly to disciplinary action.
The PCC additionally works to prevent, indeed pre-empt, harm and to encourage editors to think before possibly breaching the code. We do this through pre-publication advice, by sending anti-harassment notices and by engaging with editors where a potential claimant fears something inaccurate or intrusive will be published. At the heart of this is our desire to help vulnerable people who may be at the centre of media attention, and feel overwhelmed by it.
Recent nationally representative polling showed that 76% (of those who had an opinion on the subject) said the PCC was effective or very effective. The same polling has shown that three quarters of the population (77%) prefer a quick public apology to a lengthy process and fine and that the PCC’s name recognition is high (81%).
The PCC operates independently of the industry it regulates. All Chairmen since the PCC’s inception in 1991 have come from a non-newspaper background. Of course all self-regulatory systems have industry involvement, and this means that the members have made a public commitment to their own regulation. However, the majority of ten public members of the Commission to the minority of seven editorial members is the largest majority of any press council in Europe. As we make publicly clear, editors do not consider complaints relating to titles with which they are editorially involved and receive no information about the cases, and physically leave the room when they are discussed.
We welcome constructive proposals to enable the PCC’s public service to improve further and hope too that during your conference debate we will see greater understanding and appreciation of the public service the PCC provides.
Jonathan Collett is Director of Communications at the Press Complaints Commission.
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