The Independent View: PCC responds to party motion on its future

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.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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  • Antony Hook 17th Aug '10 - 3:50pm

    “PCC censure can lead direcrly to disciplinary action.”

    How often has that happened to a journalist of a national newspaper in the last 5 years?

  • “It contains a number of inaccuracies”

    What are these? You don’t seem to have highlighted them in the above article.

  • Perhaps for a start we could have a source for the polling information cited, and the details of who paid for the poll? I have certainly seen contrary polling evidence.

    It would be helpful if the author detailed the supposed ‘inaccuracies’ and ‘false premises’ in the conference motion rather than just claiming they exist and leaving it hanging. I am aware of one in relation to the PCC’s Chairmanship, but it doesn’t strike me as decisive.

    Why does the number of public complaints continue to rise? Are there any problems at all? Or are we just getting a paid PR person telling us that everything’s fine?

  • Andrew Suffield 17th Aug '10 - 4:31pm

    Does anybody else get a feeling that the post is a lot like the sort of news stories which the PCC entirely fails to do anything about, to our unending frustration?

  • As the proposer of this motion, I refute your claim that it is “based on several false premises”. There are no false premises in the motion. You’re right that there are two minor inaccuracies in the motion that should be corrected:

    1) The claim that the PCC is “widely viewed as ‘lacking in credibility and authority’ among the public” was made by the Chair of the CMS Select Committee, rather than the report itself.

    2 The Editors’ Code of Practice Committee has in the past been chaired by editors, not the full PCC committee (though editors do currently serve on the committee).

    Clearly these minor factual errors, but they do not materially alter the accuracy or truth of the overall motion. However, you do make some inaccurate claims yourself:

    Firstly, you claim that “the thrust of the Conference motion for debate is that the PCC should impose financial sanctions”. Not true – the trust of the motion is to propose reforms to the PCC that will give it more power, make it more accountable and more representative of the general public, rather than the industry. Of course it makes sense for a regulator to have some power to impose penalties: at the moment, the PCC is about the only regulator in Britain that does not have the power to impose financial sanctions.

    Your claim that “the PCC operates independently of the industry it regulates” is hard to believe when seven of its 17 members are serving editors, whose own publications must come under the PCC’s spotlight from time to time. Even if an editor leaves the room when a complaint is heard against them, it is still makes it far more difficult for the rest of the committee to take robust action, as anyone who has ever served on a committee will know.

    Finally, in spite of the polling you quote demonstrating that the popularity of the PCC, the CMS committee’s report came to the conclusion that the PCC was simply not doing the job for which it was set up. A particularly instructive paragraph is point 79 of the Conclusions and Recommendations, which says:

    “We remain of the view that self regulation of the press is greatly preferable to statutory regulation, and should continue. However, for confidence to be maintained, the industry regulator must actually effectively regulate, not just mediate. The powers of the PCC must be enhanced, as it is toothless compared to other regulators”.

  • The PCC is not a “public service”, and find it extremely disturbing that the PCC’s Director of Communications is using such willfully misleading language.

  • British journalism has reached a very low ebb.

    Let’s start with the proprietors. Murdoch owns 40% of the national print media, Rothermere, the Barclays and Desmond most of the rest. Local newspapers exist solely as hoardings for estate agents and the motor trade, and since the recession hit their revenue, have been closing offices and sacking the few journalists they employ. The fact that our print media is owned by billionaires (one of them a North American billionaire close to the military-industrial complex and the families) ensures that editorial content furthers the interests of the ultra-rich and US foreign policy and starves the reader of real objective information.

    Now to the journalists. There was a time when journalists saw it as their job to report news. Today, most are either too lazy or overworked to venture out and look for primary sources. They would far rather reproduce press agency reports, copy out press releases, or failing those, trawl the internet. Going out into the elements and chasing after the stories doesn’t enter into it for 99%of the profession.

    Then we have the acres of worthless garbage known as “comment”. Why is the British public paying money to read the prejudiced opinions of highly paid windbags like Richard Littlejohn and Melanie Phillipst, or the superficially “progressive” people who populate the “Grauniad” editorial pages? They don’t inform, these characters, they manipulate the gullible, feed base instincts, and behave as though their worth is somehow equal to their bank balances. Oh, and I haven’t even started on pop singers, soap opera stars, super models, footballers and the like. Far better to fill readers’ minds with trash than inform them.

    Something needs to be done about the law of defamation. Why do the newspapers neglect to tell us about bribery by multi-national companies and Police corruption? Partly because the big newspaper proprietors are in favour of bribery by multi-national companies, and don’t care if the Police kill people in custody or fit them up for crimes they didn’t commit as long as they are not rich people. More fundamentally – and this cuts across the whole print media, right, centre and left – the chilling effect of the law of defamation means that certain subjects are no-go areas for print journalism. Professor Eric Berendt identified bribery by multi-national companies and deaths in Police custody as two such areas. The law of defamation is intended to protect the reputations of people generally, but in reality it only protects the rich and members of the Police Federation. Conversely, expressing outrageous opinions (such as implying that Nick Clegg is a Nazi) is tolerated, because the law protects opinions but not statements of fact.

    Most newspapers, in my opinion, are a waste of Finnish pine trees, and if they were chucked in the recycling bin unread we would be no worse off.

    PS: Isn’t it strange that national newspapers never seem to report the proceedings at Bilderberg conferences, even though newspaper proprietors are often in attendance? If world leaders get together every year for a semi-secret shindig, one would have thought that the public would want to know about it. Apparently not.

  • Antony Hook 17th Aug '10 - 9:48pm


    In fairness, this years Bilderberg conference was reported somewhat in the Telegraph.

  • Has the PCC actually ever done anything?

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