8 January 2013 – Well, well, well… Who would have thought it? It’s back to the bad old days as 2013 kicks off with some gentle back-slapping from the Press Complaints Commission.
In their annual ‘self-satisfaction’ survey, the PCC claim that 86% (of those who gave an opinion) said their staff were either very helpful, helpful or satisfactory (goodness me!); 79% of those who provided an opinion thought that their complaint had been handled (in terms of thoroughness) either very well, well or satisfactorily (lots more weasel words in there); 68% thought the time taken to deal with their complaint was ‘about right’ (evidently one third felt differently); and the PCC website got a 80%-100% rating for helpfulness from 65% (I do hope the PCC don’t think that is good enough).
But enough of the carping – surely this is the good news we want to hear as Lord Hunt continues his behind-close-doors negotiations to replace Lord Justice Leveson’s ‘bonkers’ proposals with a mish-mash cooked up by the editors themselves. And ‘bonkers’ they must be since the Prime Minister, still a close friend of disgraced editor Rebekah Brooks, has not fully endorsed them, having said he would unless they were…
We do seem to be back to where we were when Sir David Calcutt QC was fulminating about the need for privacy laws 20 years ago. Back then the editors wiped out the Press Council they had reluctantly created under pressure 40 year previously, and came up with the PCC. And they have been pulling rabbits out of hats ever since. I recall the Daily Mail‘s Sir David English – then chair of the Editors’ Code Committee – proudly announcing a new clause outlawing payments to criminals on the very day he was to be grilled by the then National Heritage Committee about the practice, in December 1996. Now we have his successor Paul Dacre revising the self-same code at the same time as he uses the power of his organ to rubbish those critical of newspaper excesses. And the Tory Lord Hunt, who found little favour with the Lord Justice, is still cheerily setting out his stall. A protégé of his predecessor at the PCC, Lord ‘Mr Fixit’ Wakeham, Lord Hunt speaks for the industry that pays him, and not for the public whose interests have yet to be served.
Before the Leveson hearings began the PCC was only too keen to cosy up to erstwhile critics like MediaWise, which has been snapping at its ankles and supplying evidence to countless parliamentary enquires for a generation. But since the report was delivered, there has been no sign at all that complainants, civil society groups, and campaigners have any place in their thinking or that of most national newspaper editors.
Having first released a barrage of misinformation about Leveson’s proposals – suggesting they amount to state censorship – and putting the wind up parliamentarians, national newspaper editors have been in a holy huddle trying to manufacture a solution satisfactory to themselves which they can ‘sell’ both to the government and the public. Of course, now we all have many other things on our minds, post-floods and post-Christmas. Welfare and health ‘reforms’ are more pressing concerns than the press. That is all to the good for the folk who daily set the news agenda.
In an open democracy, media accountability, like press freedom, is most important for the public. The right to set the agenda, make the rules, and determine what is right and wrong is not the purview of the rich and powerful who own newspapers and other media outlets – especially when the agenda, the rules, and the rights and wrongs concern their behaviour.
What is missing from the process now is public participation. Where are the MPs consulting their constituents? Where are the national TV and radio programmes debating Leveson’s proposals with members of the public instead of media pundits? A silent steamroller is ironing out the wrinkles in Leveson that most upset the press – and the public is being left behind.
Civil society organisations – trades unions, church and community groups, and special interest groups – should now be demanding a say in the way Leveson is implemented. They may not be allowed many column inches to express their views, but they could at least start nominating the sort of representation they want on the body that will replace the PCC. Perhaps it’s time to use social media to tell MPs, and the Prime Minister, where our interests lie.
Director, The MediaWise Trust