A new broom?

16 July 2002 – It would be churlish not to welcome Sir Christopher Meyer to his appointment as the next chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. And so we wish him well. The current British ambassador to the U.S. is going to need all his diplomatic skills when he dives into the shark-infested media pond in March 2003.

The big question is whether this will be business as usual, with Sir Fix-it replacing Lord Fix-it, or whether Sir Christopher will bring meaningful reform to an institution which is in some need of it.

What he could do is open to question. The whole essence of self-regulation means that the new chairman will be beholden to those who appointed him and pay his salary, and they will be expecting that he does everything in his diplomatic power to stave off any suggestion of legislative restrictions on the press. This was Lord Wakeham’s great achievement, and like his predecessor, Sir Christopher undoubtedly possesses all the necessary contacts in high places. His influence on the fair and proper treatment of complainants is more problematic.

Which brings us to the issue of what he should do, at least in the view of PressWise – which is admittedly biased in favour of those who seek redress from the PCC. This is our wish list:

1. It is time the public were given a chance to contribute to the revision of the Code of Practice. Sir Christopher could help to improve the credibility of the PCC by initiating public debate about its content. He could then lobby Pressbof, the industry body that determines the Code, to make some changes – not least of which would be to allow some lay input to their deliberations. At a time when the government is seeking to implement a suicide prevention strategy which has a media component, it would help if the code contained a clause specifically concerned with media coverage of suicide – especially since recent studies have demonstrated a link between certain types of coverage and the ‘copycat’ phenomenon.

2. The PCC’s constitution gives Sir Christopher immense discretion over which complaints to consider and which to drop discreetly. After 12 years it is time for an overhaul. Why can’t we have some ‘mediation meetings’ at which editors and complainants can discuss their differences? And he would do well to allow more opportunities for ‘third party’ complaints, so that the vexed question of discriminatory copy which does not refer to individuals can be dealt with more adequately. The PCC has issued edicts on reporting of mental health issues, pensioners, and xenophobia but needs to take a tougher line on, for instance, accurate reporting of health issues (rather more heat than light has been generated by the plethora of recent stories about the risks of HRT) and coverage of minorities – in particular refugees and asylum seekers who have little opportunity to answer back but bear the brunt of public dissatisfaction with government policy.

3. He should introduce some meaningful form of sanction, bringing the PCC into line with all other self-regulatory professional bodies (which are frequently criticised in the press for not being tough enough with their miscreants). This could take the form of fines and/or compensation for successful complainants. The public are led to believe that editors’ careers are at risk if the PCC finds against them, but Piers Morgan of the Mirror appears to be thriving despite several negative adjudications, and despite a series of complaints against them, Neil Wallis of The People and Phil Hall former editor of the News of the World are serving members of the PCC. The current practice of merely requesting an offending newspaper to publish the text of a critical adjudication is analogous to the BMC saying: “Dr Shipman, we would like you to apologise to the relatives of your victims and, by the way, would you please use rather less diamorphine in future, and would you like to join the BMC?”

4. There is a need for total transparency in the way that the PCC deals with complaints. At present we are told the total number – something in excess of 3,000 a year – and the result in the tiny fraction of cases that are taken to adjudication. Of the fate of the rest, or what they were about, we know nothing. This is not good enough. True, there will be many complaints which are frivolous or which arise simply because of public misunderstanding about the proper role of the press. They will be rightly rejected by the PCC, one hopes with reasoned courtesy, but the result should none the less be recorded. But there is a huge grey area of complaints which are deemed be settled without adjudication, presumably by means of arbitration. It is in this area that the public needs to be satisfied that the Commission is doing its job. Above all it needs to know whether the complainants are satisfied by the final result, be it an apology, a published rebuttal, or whatever. Anecdotal evidence reaching PressWise suggests that in many cases they are not.

5. Sir Christopher might win more credibility for the PCC among working journalists if he were to argue that they should be immune from disciplinary action or discrimination if they refuse to obey instructions on the grounds of conscience. Of course, the best way to achieve this would be for the Code of Practice to be included voluntarily in the employment contracts of all journalists, not merely editors. That would mean a break from past PCC practice which has rejected the notion that journalists and their organisations have any role to play in upholding standards. But perhaps Sir Christopher will be more open to consulting with journalists’ unions.

So, Sir Christopher, we would like you to be firm, fair, and above all, open and co-operative. Is that too much to ask? Probably.

Bill Norris
Associate Director

(Bulletin No 68)

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