PCC Confidential?

21 November 2005 – When senior politicians clamour for the resignation of a public figure, it is tempting to rush to the defence of the belaboured individual. But it is also important to examine the facts.

The wails of protest from Westminster ignore the fact that Sir Christopher Meyer, the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, had his ambassadorial memoirs cleared by the Cabinet Office.

However he did sell serialisation rights to newspaper groups whose editors serve on the PCC (the Daily Mail‘s Paul Dacre, and Roger Alton of The Observer, owned by the Guardian Media Group) and its Code Committee (Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger).

This raises a few questions about his relationship to the industry he is supposed to police, under a Code that offers protection to personal privacy and demands that journalists must not profit from the inside information obtained in the course of their work. (Prince Charles might be interested to hear what he – and Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre – would say if a subordinate had copied bits of their journals and sold them to a newspaper without his consent.)

But apparently he took no part in the negotiations over the serialisation fees, and will donate the proceeds to children’s charities, one of which, Parents and Children Abducted Together (founded and run by his wife) has Cherie Blair and Laura Bush as patrons. So that’s alright then.

Sir Christopher may have raised a few eyebrows and ruffled a few feathers by publishing, but his timing is impeccable. He has just been awarded another three year term of office at the PCC, the knives are already out for Blair and Co, and he has had the benefit of unprecedented publicity.

With his paymasters’ backing him, he is unlikely to resign. But Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott does have a point in challenging Meyer’s role as an ‘honest broker’ for future complainants, especially those anxious about breaches of confidence. Although he may say the furore over his book has helped to publicise the PCC, it has also reminded people how much it is a creature of the newspaper industry it ‘self-regulates’.

Meyer now needs to improve the PCC’s standing by running a tougher and more rigorous regime.

He could start by reviewing the PCC’s latest extraordinary decision – that the Daily Express has no case to answer for its inaccurate headline ‘Bombers are all spongeing (sic) asylum seekers’ (27 July 05).

While acknowledging that ‘the tone of the headline – and the article… was inflammatory and unhelpful’ the Commission found against at least 20 complainants who challenged its veracity.

One reason given was that no complaint had been received from the two men named. How could they? One was in police custody, the other was on the run at the time.  The other excuse was that the story itself apparently qualified the headline.

But how could it? There were four alleged would-be bombers at the 21 July incidents. Only two had been named and neither are asylum-seekers. Muktar Mohammad Saed arrived from Eritrea in 1992 as the14-year-old dependent of successful asylum-seekers, and is now a British citizen. Yasin Hassan Omar also arrived in 1992, as an unaccompanied 11-year-old from war-torn Somalia and was given sanctuary.

The PCC claims that the front-page headline was ‘expressing a view’ – yet the Code requires newspapers to ‘distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact’. And it appears to have forgotten that Sir Christopher himself issued a guidance note to Editors in 2003 about ‘the danger that inaccurate, misleading or distorted reporting (about refugees and asylum seekers) may generate an atmosphere of fear and hostility that is not borne out by the facts.’

Leaving aside the fact that an entitlement to benefit does not make someone a sponger, it also seems to have slipped the PCC’s notice that the Express phone poll that day was “Should all asylum-seekers now be turned back?”

Perhaps the PCC was worried that by upholding the complaints they might be criticised for defending the rights of alleged wrong-doers, or had their decision gone the other way perhaps it might have been a resigning issue for PCC member Peter Hill, the Editor of the Daily Express.

Sir Christopher must now confound his critics by demonstrating that he is as independent of his current paymasters as he was of his former employers. Meanwhile, if he would like to donate his royalties to a charity, MediaWise would be happy to receive them – unless he feels that would be too much of a conflict of interest.

Mike Jempson
Director, MediaWise

(Bulletin No 115)

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