28 April 2002 – The Press Complaints Commission faces an awkward dilemma this week: what to do about Tony Blair’s complaint that he has been vilified by three publications – The Spectator, the Evening Standard, and The Mail on Sunday. All three carried the same story, to the effect that Mr Blair had attempted to use his influence to enhance his role at the Queen Mother’s funeral, and they are all sticking to their guns and refusing to apologise.
Mr Blair’s complaint, on the grounds of alleged inaccuracy, is not the first he has made to the PCC. The difference this time is that it is the first not to involve his family. Said a statement issued by No. 10 Downing St: “We are forced to take this course. The Prime Minister has many things written about him which are untrue and which he lets pass, but the idea that he would seek to exploit the death of the Queen Mother is totally without foundation and deeply offensive.”
Leaving aside the fact that the accusation would not seem to be totally out of character, the papers concerned are insisting that they have an impeccable source for their account of the conversation between Blair aide Clare Sumner and Black Rod, who made the funeral arrangements. And they are, very properly, refusing to reveal the name of that source.
This puts Professor Pinker and his merry men in a difficult spot. They have no machinery for investigating the truth of the claims on either side, and no powers to insist on naming the informant. Someone is telling porkies*, but who? If this were an ordinary complainant, there is little doubt that the verdict would go in favour of the press, or simply not go to adjudication. But this is no ordinary complainant; this is the Prime Minister, forsooth. This is the man who, if he so wished, could bring press regulation under the wing of Ofcom or even introduce a law of privacy, and he will want an answer. To find in favour of the newspapers would be tantamount to calling him a liar. The whole future of the PCC could be in jeopardy.
On balance, therefore, there must be a temptation to throw the errant editors to the wolves. But wait, there is another complication. This might establish a precedent for permitting every politician, high or low, to come running to the PCC every time a newspaper writes something with which he or she disagrees. It would, in effect, politicise the Commission.
Over to you, Professor Pinker. And good luck.
(Bulletin No 62)