In defence of the Press Complaints Commission

Ed Miliband described the Press Complaints Commission as a ‘toothless poodle’ today. Yes I know, if anyone’s well placed to sport a toothless poodle, it’s the current Labour leader. But he wasn’t alone in criticising the role of the PCC in the phone hacking scandal.

Nick Clegg, for what it is worth, described the PCC as a busted flush. Again, if anyone is in a position to make such a call on what makes a busted flush, it’s the deputy prime minister.

Meanwhile, David Cameron today said the PCC wasn’t working – just six weeks after saying it worked really well. But when you’re the prime minister and your judgement is being questioned, having a few targets to take the heat off you always helps.

So, having dismissed the onslaught from politicians towards the PCC as convenient posturing, is it true that the PCC doesn’t work?

To answer that question, you have to understand what the PCC does, and what it is there to do. And for the majority of the time it does work. I write this as a regional journalist.

The PCC describes its primary role as ‘dealing with complaints, framed within the terms of the Editors’ Code of Practice, about the editorial content of newspapers and magazines (and their websites, including editorial audio-visual material) and the conduct of journalists.’

It adds that it aims to hold editors to account. And in the main, it does.

There’s a myth that journalists laugh when the PCC rings up to say someone has complained about an article. The truth is far from that in the newsrooms I’ve worked in. The prospect of dealing with a PCC complaint is a daunting one, both for the editorial manager tasked with drawing up a response and for the reporter whose work comes under scrutiny.

The reason that the prospect of a PCC complaint is met with such dread is because it could mean a breakdown of trust between reader and local newspaper has gone so far that an independent third party is needed to resolve matters.

There’s a big difference between the relationship national newspapers have with their audience and local newspapers do. For national newspaper journalists, the relationship is a remote one. For local newspaper journalists, the readership is all around them. If they don’t like what you do, or the way you’ve behaved, not only will they stop buying your paper, they will also tell their friends and family about your behaviour too.

So if that complaint can’t be resolved by the newspaper dealing directly with the reader, it’s potentially bad news. And to anyone who says ‘all it leads to is a small correction on page two which no-one reads’, please believe me when I say that a correction in the paper does hurt, both as a reporter and a news editor. Readers do notice it, contacts remember it’s your story and yes, they do comment on it.

If the investigation in the newsroom which is prompted by the PCC uncovers something – a note which wasn’t quite right, a misinterpretation of something or a corner cut – then the news editor could feel let down, or the reporter worried that he won’t be trusted again. So it’s a serious business when the PCC rings up to find out about a story.

The challenge the PCC faced before this week was that many of its critics were people who didn’t like the result of their complaint. The PCC website makes it clear exactly what sort of sanctions they can apply yet there is a difference between what it can do and what people hope it will do.

But that’s also a problem for newspapers – because if you get to a point when someone is wishing for really strong sanctions against a newspaper, then it’s a relationship lost, and one which can’t be repaired very easily.

That’s why, in the vast majority of cases, the PCC works. I can’t help but think the PCC is a handy scapegoat for government at the moment. After all, if the Metropolitan Police with its highly-skilled investigators couldn’t get to the bottom of the extent of phone hacking, is it fair to expect the PCC to have done so?

For ever prominent case where someone says the PCC isn’t fit for purpose, there are hundreds of cases of people who do find themselves with a voice within a newsroom which they feel has wronged them.

As Roy Greenslade noted today, it’s not a perfect system. But to say it doesn’t work is simply ignoring the facts. Remember all those MPs calling for the PCC to killed off are also constituency MPs. They, surely, should be aware of how effective the PCC can be at a local level. But I guess that’s an inconvenient truth at the moment.

11 comments

  1. I can’t but help think that many of those calling for stronger regulation than the PCC can provide seem to be forgetting that these acts were against the law, there have been arrests and those responsible may face prison sentences – is illegality and the full force of law not regulation enough?

    Other than that, self-regulation independent of the government goes hand in hand with a free press as far as I’m concerned, that’s reason enough to improve the PCC rather than replace it.

  2. If the “red socked fop” Sir Christopher Meyer had taken action as head of the “toothless poodle” in 2007 none of this mighty mess need have ever occurred. It had to be on his watch. Trust him not to stick his oar in when it was actually needed.

  3. In my experience, the PCC works, even if I don’t agree with some of its verdicts and decisions. Those who say it failed on phone hacking misunderstand the way it was intended to work.

  4. More reason here why we need an effective Press Complaints Commission or some other form of independent regulation. It’s ICO details from some time ago on the extent of foul and illegal behaviour indulged in by hundreds of reporters across all tabloids, magazines and some broadsheets:

    http://www.ico.gov.uk/upload/documents/library/corporate/research_and_reports/what_price_privacy_now.pdf

    See pages 8 and 9

    Also, details of Operation Motorman, connected to the above, from Nick Davies of the Guardian:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/aug/31/press-privacy-information-commmissioner

    1. Thanks Paul. I think it’s important to note that the Information Commissioner is at pains to say that he’s not saying why those actions he documented took place – and indeed he points out it may be in the process of public interest journalism.

  5. Thanks. But would he say that NOW, three years on and in the light of recent events?

    And if you follow the other link, it’s clear that none of the activity is justified by the public interest. Nick Davies underlines this in the article. And his work to date has been no less than stirling.

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