PCC Governance Review: Missed opportunities?

7 July 2010 – At long last the internal review of how the Press Complaints Commission works has been published. Unsurprisingly, it endorses the current system of press self-regulation that has grown up over the last 20 years. However it also urges greater openness with and accountability to the public, a more proactive role for the PCC in challenging press misbehaviour, and a tougher regime of sanctions.

Most of the proposed reforms are to be welcomed, especially if they lead to PCC procedures being better known and respected, and if the PCC agrees to make more robust and independent interventions when it feels that the press has overstepped the mark.

The reforms could be costly, of course, and in these straightened times the PCC and its industry paymasters may not feel inclined to such investment when complaints are on the increase and advertising revenue and sales on the decline.

So it may be a while before we see the reforms enacted, and that may allow some old confusions that have resurfaced in the review to be cleared up in the meantime.

On the one hand Vivien Hepworth and her review panel feel that the PCC ‘should make more use of the fact that the (Editors’) Code (of Practice) is written into journalists’ contracts’ (para 46), calling for ‘disciplinary action against a journalist on the back of a PCC ruling that confirms a breach of the Code’ (para 45). On the other hand the panel ‘does not support the idea that it should be journalists, rather than editors, who sit on the PCC.’ (para 78)

Contrary to a myth popular at the PCC for many years, the Code is not written into most journalists’ contracts, especially the increasing number who are freelances. And why should it be – they have no say in its compilation, nor in editorial decisions, nor in the PCC. And there is the rub. For the moment the Code of Practice policed by the PCC is indeed the Editors’ Code (they write it, agree to be judged by it and their publications pay the PCC to adjudicate on alleged breaches).

According to the logic employed throughout the review to justify the current system of self-regulation, if working journalists are to be disciplined under the Code – they should have a say in how it is compiled and moderated. If it is to be used to initiate disciplinary procedures at the behest of an external body, then working journalists and their organisations should be represented not just on the PCC but also on the industry’s Code Committee. Nonetheless MediaWise has argued that self-regulation would be enhanced among working journalists if they were to supplement, not replace, editors on the PCC.

MediaWise welcomes the idea that tougher sanctions should be imposed on editors for breaches of the Code. It remains to be seen whether being hauled across the carpet by the PCC, or their publisher, will be more effective than the measures recommended by MediaWise – graduated fines for persistent breaches, and compensation for complainants who incur costs when countering inaccurate or intrusive stories.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. How long will it take the PCC and the Press Board of Finance to digest and act upon Ms Hepworth’s platter of goodies?

Mike Jempson
Director, MediaWise

(Bulletin No. 154)

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