The Press Complaints Commission: from 'Last Chance Saloon' to 'Toothless Poodle'

The phone hacking scandal has put the spotlight on the British media industry's self-regulatory body, revealing a history of weakness and failure. So what is the future of the PCC and press regulation in the UK?
Tim Holmes
5 August 2011

As phone-hacking has dominated the British media in recent weeks, the tide seems finally to have turned against the Press Complaints Commission – the industry self-regulatory body charged with upholding standards of accuracy and integrity in the press. The body’s head, Lady Buscombe, has announced her departure next January; and leaders of all three main political parties now favour its dissolution. The PCC has been called a “toothless poodle” of the press (Ed Miliband); “ineffective”, “lacking in rigour” and not “truly independent”(David Cameron); “absolutely ludicrous” and “run by the media, for the media” (Nick Clegg). Proposals for its replacement remain divisive, though. While Miliband is continuing to back self-regulation, Cameron has called for a body that is putatively independent of both state and press.

Curiously enough, in May Cameron was telling the Today Programme that “actually the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has come on a lot in recent years, and we should be working with that organisation”. By this point, all relevant evidence of the PCC’s systemic failure on phone-hacking was already public. As Channel Four’s Jon Snow recently tweeted, “We knew it was happening ... all of it in a sense, why didn't we do more about it?” A February 2010 Parliamentary Select Committee report, for instance, condemned the PCC for an inquiry that had not “fully, or forensically, considered all the evidence”; “effectively exonerated the News of the World”; and was “simplistic, surprising and a further failure of self-regulation”. Members noted that the PCC “quoted selectively from police evidence” and “did not carry out a proper investigation”. A week later, the International Federation of Journalists condemned the PCC for “wholly inadequate” reports on phone-hacking that “weakened its credibility”; “revealed major failings in its mandate and its ways of operating”; and portrayed the scandal as “just ‘two bad apples’ in an otherwise virtuous Garden of Eden”. With the PCC successfully sued after Buscombe libelled a lawyer in her defence of the News of the World, and the recent arrest of that paper’s former Deputy Editor Neil Wallis – himself a PCC member – its reputation has now hit rock-bottom.

Clearly, the Milly Dowler revelations “changed the politics”: the political class can no longer cover for the PCC’s systemic failings.

The history of the PCC

The PCC’s overall record is not flattering. The body was created in 1991 as a “Last Chance Saloon”, following the failure of the nearly forty-year-old self-regulatory body the Press Council, and amid public outrage at some familiar tabloid abuses: “paying criminals or police for their news, fabricating stories, or intruding on the privacy of politicians and royals.”

Sir David Calcutt, who proposed the PCC’s formation, recommended statutory intervention if continued self-regulation failed. Yet within two years, his 1993 Review of Press Self Regulation was already condemning the body as “not ... an effective regulator of the press” and “not the truly independent body that it should be”. Nevertheless, as former Mirror editor Roy Greenslade recounts, press resistance and Governmental reluctance to intervene prevented Calcutt’s proposed statutory body being realised. That same year, polls found one in ten people believed journalists could generally be trusted to tell the truth. This year the figure remained less than one in five.

For a start, the body is profoundly compromised by its funding and staffing. As founder member of the PCC, former Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard editor (and defender of self-regulation) Max Hastings points out,

“some British newspapers flourish on habitual indifference as to whether what they print might be true or not. And the editors of such titles ... are invited to take their turns as members of the Press Complaints Commission.”

The PCC is therefore “diminished by the participation of journalists who should be beyond the pale”, and “will never deserve much regard from the public, as long as it appears willing to justify obvious excesses by some of the newspapers which pay its bills.” As veteran journalist and co-founder of Private Eye Richard Ingrams notes, the PCC, “largely composed of newspaper editors”, is a “discredited institution. ... Given its composition, it is not surprising that nine times out of 10 it sides with the newspaper rather than the complainant.”

The body’s track record in settling complaints is undoubtedly woeful. As of 2008,

“the PCC reject[ed] 90.2 per cent of all complaints on technical grounds without investigation. Of the 28,227 complaints received by the commission over ten years, 197 were upheld by a PCC adjudication: 0.69 per cent.”

When it does rule, a standard response is to reclassify unambiguous statements of fact as subjective “views”. Calling climate scientists “mendacious” was “clearly recognisable as” a writer’s “subjective opinion”. Citing bogus “discoveries” was simply “highlighting” a person’s “views”. The words “the fact is” prefacing a summary of (alleged) research findings, was merely “comment”: a “columnist present[ing] her particular views”. And when the Mail’s Jan Moir penned a homophobic smear on the late Stephen Gately, her stark factual misrepresentations went unmentioned.

This is when the PCC is able to rule at all. Earlier this year the owners of the Star and Express simply stopped funding the body – summarily exempting themselves from its remit. The PCC’s Public Affairs Director had already spelled out the implications:

“Ultimately if major newspapers say “There’s no point in this system anymore, we’re not going to bother with it” eventually it will start to fall apart and in that scenario there will have to be something else.”

Future prospects

Will any successor solve these glaring systemic problems? Establishing another self-regulatory body would surely repeat the mistakes made 20 years ago – simply implanting one inadequate industry body in place of another.

An independent body with statutory powers – not unlike the existing judicial system – is surely the most promising model. Though the phone-hacking scandal risks undermining public consent for intrusive and underhand investigatory methods, these must still be permitted when justified by a clear public interest. Yet any such body could equally prove too timid, or subject to capture by the institutions it is supposed to regulate. Broadcasting regulator Ofcom, for instance, remains apparently incapable of ruling on profoundly misleading content; while, as Lord Lipsey has put it, the role of Ofcom chair

“need[s] a brave man or woman. It is a really difficult position – as soon as you do something to upset a media company, they’ll pour shit all over you.”

Falsehood and distortion can nevertheless have profound consequences, including serious adverse impacts on public health. The rights of a free press must therefore be delimited by the public’s right not to be misinformed by the information sources on which they rely.

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Pluralism entails admitting all manner of opinions – including on the status of accredited information and its sources. To avoid misleading the public, however, content that runs counter to the weight of factual evidence or scientific opinion should be clearly identified. Straightforward statements of fact that run counter to the available evidence should not be admitted. Papers might reasonably be required to make available the sources their writers use (where this would not compromise the need for confidentiality), when making factual claims, or to include relevant contextual information – possibly with the help of specialist consultants – when covering scientific or other factual matters. As Justin Lewis suggests, a robust system facilitating a meaningful “right of reply” should also be introduced. The press’s responsibilities as a source of public information could thus be met – without compromising the freedoms of the kind of genuinely pluralistic press we should be fighting for.

Tim Holmes researches and writes on climate change, media, public opinion and new social movements. He blogs at Convenient Lies

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