Surprise, surprise. The Press Complaints Commission rejected the complaints about Jan Moir’s nasty attack on Stephen Gately.
If there’s any good to come out of this affair, perhaps it’s that this case reinforces the case for wholesale reform of the PCC. Here’s why.
The PCC is not independent
The PCC claims to be independent. One of the advantages of self regulation ought to be that it keeps the press out of the hands of politicians while still holding newspapers to account.
The PCC fails on both counts.
The Chair of the 17-member Commission is Baroness Buscombe, a Conservative member of the House of Lords. Her party is irrelevant – the fact that a serving politician chairs the PCC is not.
Now, the PCC claims its Commission has a majority of non-press members. This is true. However, the Chair’s appointment is decided by the newspaper industry alone.
On top of this, the Commission makes the final decision on all complaints to the PCC – which it does by using the Editors’ Code of Practice.
The Chair of the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee is Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail. And this committee, which oversees the code itself, has NO non-press membership at all. And it’s this Code that the PCC uses to make its decisions.
The principle of this seems wrong – the body that decides complaints has the appearance of independence. But its chair and the rules that it enforces are decided solely by the industry that it regulates. That’s a bit like the banking industry deciding the FSA’s rulebook and appointing it’s chief exec.
You can see the problem in the Jan Moir case. Clause 12 of the PCC states that “the press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative references to an individual’s … sexual orientation”.
As the PCC says in its judgment, “The question of whether the [Daily Mail] article was homophobic or discriminatory to gay people in general did not fall under the remit of the Code.”
But who decided that this is what the Code should say? The committee headed by the Daily Mail editor. Why should there not be a blanket ban on generally homophobic articles written into the Code? Because the newspaper industry says so.
The PCC is not transparent
Let’s take a look at its website.
If you look under adjudicated cases, you find no mention of the Jan Moir ruling.
If you look at “monthly summaries” – these only go up to September 2009.
It seems the PCC can’t be bothered to keep its own record of rulings and statistics up to date.
The actual ruling in the Jan Moir case is found in its press release section. Yes, to the PCC, this is an issue to do with media management, not one that any of the 25,000 people who complained ought to have access to.
The PCC is not “accessible to all”
The PCC is not accessible to all, as it claims. The PCC rules on complaints only if you’re directly affected.
25,000 people complained about what Jan Moir wrote. The PCC considered just one complaint, that of Stephen’s partner, Andrew Cowles – those 25,000 people have no way to access any sort of complaints procedure. If Andrew Cowles hadn’t complained, the PCC would not have ruled in this case.
The PCC and newspaper industry know perfectly well that there are whole groups of people who will never complain in person. Many people can’t be seen to complain -such as the Prime Minister after the phone-tapping issue. Others don’t know about the PCC – such as 13-year-old girls called sluts or 12-year-old boys wrongly splashed over the front pages.
By insisting that only directly affected people can complain, the PCC shows that is, in fact, a complaint-resolution mechanism and NOT a self-regulatory body.
The PCC’s decision making is flawed
The PCC judgment is long. Very long. I’m not going to attempt a line by line analysis (I’ve already highlighted some oddities).
But a few points are worth making.
One of the most damning parts of the judgment, that the PCC obfuscates in its 3,500-word ruling is this:
“The claim, in addition, that after returning to their property the complainant and a third gentleman, Mr Dochev, “went to the bedroom together while Stephen remained alone in the living room” was inaccurate. In fact, all three men spent time together in the living room and Mr Gately had died while he and the complainant were asleep together on the sofa. He had not therefore died a “lonely” death.”
Yes, the central thrust of what Moir wrote – that Gately died a lonely death while his partner was with another man in the bedroom – was factually incorrect. Despite this, the PCC did not uphold the complaint.
Of course, the PCC has form in arguing that whatever a columnist writes should not be considered as a statement of fact.
It pursues this line here: “the Commission felt that [Moir’s] individual judgments [about how Gately had died] did not constitute assertions of fact… The article was essentially a compendium of speculations by the columnist… based on material that had been placed in the public domain by other coverage, including the suggestion that Mr Gately had been left alone by the complainant and Mr Dochev. In the Commission’s view, her conjecture would be taken as such by readers.”
First, until I read the judgement, I had always presumed that Moir was at least correct that Gately had died alone. I hadn’t assumed this was conjecture on her part – ie that she was making it up. I wonder how the Commission decided what readers would take from what she wrote. Did they do any research? Or did they just decide that they knew best? Perhaps they were worried that Paul Dacre would be cross with them?
Second, the PCC is excusing what she wrote on the grounds that someone else had said it already. On this basis, newspapers can justify any factual inaccuracy as long as someone else said it first. What was Cowley supposed to do, track down the first journalist to wrongly claim Gately died alone and complain about them only?
The PCC goes on to argue that “To rule otherwise would be to say that newspapers are not entitled to publish certain opinions (which may be disagreeable to many) on events that are matters of public discussion. This would be a slide towards censorship, which the Commission could not endorse.”
The flip side of this is that, once the papers have got their teeth into something, no successful complaint can be made. Once papers report something enough, it becomes a matter of public discussion – and therefore appears to be protected in the PCC’s eyes. But it becomes protected like this only because newspapers choose to publish in the first place.
This lays bare what the PCC is all about. Under the thin veneer of the public interest in protecting the press from political interference, it allows newspapers to publish what they want, true or not, about matters that are of interest to the public.
I’m not in favour of censorship. I accept that people should be allowed to write things in papers that I fundamentally disagree with.
The PCC, however, should not be part of that debate for much longer.
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