14 July 2003 – The decision by the Press Complaints Commission to censure The Guardian for publishing an account of Lord Archer’s imprisonment, and paying the fellow prisoner who wrote it, is one of the more remarkable episodes in the history of this august institution. Its decision to investigate the Guardian‘s payment into a trust of NUJ-rate fees for a column from a serving prisoner, with the consent of prison authorities, is even more puzzling, as the Editors of the Telegraph and Independent have said.
Who complained about these articles? No one. Certainly not Lord Archer who, being Lord Archer, was probably grateful for anything that kept him in the public eye. So, lacking any complaint, the PCC decided to launch its own investigation, and duly found the paper guilty of breaching Article 17 of the Code of Practice.
17. Payment for articles *
Payment or offers of payment for stories, pictures or information, must not be made directly or through agents to convicted or confessed criminals or their associates – who may include family, friends and colleagues – except when the material concerned ought to be published in the public interest and payment is necessary for this to be done.
Leave aside for the moment the fact that the rest of the media had been salivating over Lord Archer’s imprisonment ever since he was put behind bars, and that he himself had written about it (bending prison regulations by having his book published and serialised – and you can’t fool the public that he won’t benefit financially from that). That alone might have justified publication on the grounds of public interest.
The fact is that the PCC took it upon itself to launch an investigation into supposed misbehaviour by a newspaper; something it has been loathe to do since the ill-judged Royal interventions of its first chair, Lord McGregor. Now Sir Christopher Meyer has indicated that under his reforming regime the PCC will develop its newly-rediscovered investigatory powers.
We look forward to seeing those powers used whenever a newspaper transgresses against the Code, whether or not there has been a complaint. For a start, our newly-fanged watchdog can start chewing over coverage about refugees and asylum seekers, which leaves a lot to be desired in terms of accuracy if not discrimination. And it can have an almost daily diet of breaches of personal privacy. To preserve our own value as an advocate for complainants, PressWise has eschewed such interventions – but we would agree that more proactivity from the PCC could help to improve standards of journalism, which is a key part of our aims.
However, how odd that the PCC should pick on The Guardian. Perish the thought that it was singled out because of its past criticisms of the Commission. None but the most cynical would entertain such an idea.
Coming as it did on the heels of the exoneration of the News of the World for paying petty criminals to entrap others, the PCC’s new enterprise appears all the more perverse. Let’s hope it is starting with The Guardian as a prelude to letting loose the watchdog on more persistent offenders.
We look forward to the day when the PCC’s smart offices at 1 Salisbury Square bear the legend: Beware of the Dog!
(Bulletin No 89)