Opinion: The PCC are to blame for the Ryan Giggs fiasco

At Conference last September, I proposed a motion that called for new rules to beef up the PCC, making it more independent of newspaper editors and giving it real powers to regulate the wilder elements of the press. The motion called on Lib Dem ministers to act now in the face of a growing number of legal injunctions that were being fuelled by lack of confidence in the regulator. In the long run lack of action would stand to restrict press freedom, I argued, because it would give weight to calls for an illiberal privacy law whereby politicians could tell the press what they could or could not report. Alternatively there would be a privacy apartheid between those who could afford to gag the press, and those who could not (that’s to say, most of us).

“For Liberal Democrats, such injunctions will be seen as a worrying development,” I said.

“Our party’s constitution emphasises that we must “defend the right to speak, write, worship, associate and vote freely. That cannot happen if those who can afford expensive lawyers can gag the Press by using the courts.”

The motion drew a lively debate, and was passed by the federal party with two minor amendments. Yet since then, to my knowledge, not a word has been uttered about reforming the PCC by any Lib Dem minister or MP.

In the wake of the Ryan Giggs fiasco, we can now see this as a missed opportunity. But the debacle could yet be the wake-up call the Parliamentary Party needs to start getting to grips with this issue.

The truth is that if we had a proper media regulator, we wouldn’t need injunctions. The courts would seldom need to get involved, since people would have a proper means of redress through a dynamic and trustworthy PCC. Other regulators work perfectly well in this way, dismissing trivial or self-interested complaints and upholding those that have caused genuine and avoidable harm.

But in the present PCC we have a self-confessed ‘mediator’ rather than regulator, run by newspaper editors, whose primary job is to protect their colleagues. It regularly fails to enforce its own Code of Practice. The most notorious example of this was when it failed to properly investigate the phone-hacking scandal, and even attacked the Guardian for reporting on the story. Indeed, when the PCC learned of my conference motion, its chairman, Baroness Buscombe, tried to shoot it down in a lengthy article in the Lib Dem News (no link available).

Lib Dem MPs need to seize the initiative and call now for serious reform of this pathetic organisation; not to further restrict press freedom, but quite the reverse: to protect it from the threat of a statutory privacy law, or a the back-door privacy law we are currently witnessing that is taking place through the courts.

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25 Comments

  • “call for serious reform of this pathetic organisation”

    +1

  • @Edward – it is when it comes to freedom of speech. He wasn’t flouting the law, because parliamentary privilege is part of the law. It is precisely the job of MPs to speak up against the judiciary trying to hide their own judgments from us.

  • “It is precisely the job of MPs to speak up against the judiciary trying to hide their own judgments from us.”

    The Judgement was not hidden.

  • @Simon

    One example is that newspapers should prominently announce where previous stories have been incorrect or plain untrue. That does not seem an unreasonable encroachment on press freedom, and is something the PCC should do but fails to.

    There’s also the problem of papers assuming defendants are guilty etc. but perhaps that’s a matter for the courts.

  • @alec – you’re right this wasn’t trafigura, but it was an attempt to bring proceedings against 75,000 twitter users and keep one person’s name secret whilst the other individual had been named and accused of many things.

  • I thought the individual footballer in question had begun proceedings against twitter, which was why the MP in question felt the need to break the injunction? Forgive me if I am wrong, but it was the attempts to silence vast swathes of people from speaking that make this injunction harmful and made the MP seek to break it.

    And I don’t see the significance or who bandied about those allegations (neither do I necessarily agree with your claim that ‘those were bandied about mostly by those objecting to the original injunction.’)

    (btw you final few words look a bit aggressive, but I assume you are referrnig those who objected to the original injunction rather than me :-))

  • @Henry
    “it is when it comes to freedom of speech. He wasn’t flouting the law, because parliamentary privilege is part of the law. It is precisely the job of MPs to speak up against the judiciary trying to hide their own judgments from us.”

    Sorry but you’re wrong here. He was flouting the law but cannot be held to account for it due to privilege. Also at what point was the Giggs judgement hidden from you. Anyone can read it via Bailii (amongst other tools).

    “but it was an attempt to bring proceedings against 75,000 twitter users and keep one person’s name secret whilst the other individual had been named and accused of many things.”

    Again wrong. It was an attempt to find who began the twitter issue and to identify whether it was a journalist with a vested interest. If you read the judgments you think are hidden you will see why this was a very real fear due to the admission of one prominent member of the press of telling as many people as possible the details of cases where injunctions exist. Giggs could not bring proceedings for contempt of court.

  • The PCC is rubbish. The only thing that will make papers think twice will be if they have to give as many column inches, in the same position in the publication (over as many days) to retractions as to the original story. And that, if they could reasonably be expected to have known there was doubt to the veracity of the story in advance they should be fined an amount equal to the revenue from the offending publications. As right wing as this sounds let the punishments fit the offence.

    Anything less and Murdoch and co are laughing and can continue to snoop into private lives where there is zero public interest. But as Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, and as Cable lost his war, and Hemming appears to have chosen the other side to Vince we will be stuck with the rubbish that is the PCC.

  • All the stuff about John Hemmings is a distraction from the main point – that we need a regulator that actually enforces the standards set out in the PCC’s own code of practise. That would solve the privacy debate at a stroke, without involving the courts.

  • Alec, in your hypotheticals, those identities were kept secret as a matter of safety, not privacy. And the identities have not been leaked over the internet. That was the whole point of Hemming’s intervention – the law had become irrelevant in the Giggs case.

  • Kevin Colwill 27th May '11 - 1:20am

    Whatever hypothetical cases are produced to show some great point of principle has been breached the reality is we have the familiar clichéd story of the footballer who can resist everything except temptation.

    Hemmings named Ryan Giggs as a party in an affair. That’s what he did, that’s all he did. Building it into either a heroic stand for free speech or a scurrilous abuse of power does not advance the debate for either side.

    The only point of principle I can find in these cases is one person’s right to privacy should not trump another’s right to tell their own story.

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