Putting the PCC on a leash?

27 September 2002 – The announced intention of the Liberal Democrats to introduce an amendment to the Communications Bill which would bring the Press Complaints Commission under the supervision of Ofcom is welcome news. As Lord Puttnam says in an interview in the current edition of the Press Gazette: “It is not good enough in the 21st century to have a small club of proprietors and editors effectively making up and interpreting the rules as they go along.”

PressWise has long argued that newspapers should be brought within the remit of Ofcom, and the Lib Dem proposal that the PCC should, in effect, be licensed by the new regulatory body seems an ideal compromise. On the one hand it preserves the newspaper industry’s insistence on self-regulation, while at the same time holding the Commission’s feet to the fire. If it exercises the sort of control on ethical standards which is its proud boast, then well and good. If it fails to do so, as we believe it has failed in the past, then the way would be paved for the introduction of statutory controls.

If the amendment were to succeed – and the government reaction to it will certainly be interesting – it would presumably mean that the PCC would have to be considerably stricter in the enforcement of its own Code of Practice than is now the case. Many of the obstacles placed in the way of a complainant gaining a fair hearing would have to be removed, and some form of meaningful redress in the form of fines or financial compensation to those injured by press misconduct would have to be introduced. Lacking such reforms, self-regulation would remain a limp fig-leaf, covering those parts of media behaviour which proprietors and editors would rather not see exposed to public view.

As Lord McNally told the Lib Dem’s Brighton Conference: “I wish the new chairman of the PCC well. But such an amendment will put him on notice that Parliament expects him to initiate robust reform of the PCC as a matter of urgency.”

So do we all.

Bill Norris
Associate Director

(Bulletin No 73)

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