The PCC: All gloss and no delivery?

30 July 2002 – The Press Complaints Commission has just published its Annual Review 2001 – and a very glossy and expensive-looking document it is too. On its black front cover are four coloured boxes enshrining the PCC’s main aims: raising standards, protecting the public, helping the vulnerable, and delivering swift justice. The fifth – ensuring the continuance of the present system of self-regulation – is strangely absent, though its spirit permeates almost every one of the Review’s 18 pages.

So, how well did the PCC meet its stated aims in 2001? Unsurprisingly, the answer which emerges from this saga of self-congratulation and complacency is: ‘magnificently’. However, it’s possible to reach a rather different conclusion.

In 2001, the PCC received a record 3,033 complaints – 36% up on the previous year and higher than the previous record of 1996. The Commission ‘interprets this increase not necessarily as a sign of falling journalistic standards – but far more likely one of the increasing visibility of the Commission, as a result of its 10th Anniversary and a number of high-profile complaints’. However, as it undertakes no research into public opinion on the press, this in the end is pure guesswork and little more than wishful thinking.

Unsurprisingly, 56% of complaints concerned the national daily and Sunday press, a slightly higher proportion than in previous years which is ‘substantially accounted for by a significant increase in complaints against national newspapers under Clause 13 (Discrimination) of the Code of Practice following the appalling events of September 11th 2001’. These actually made up 13.5% of the total number of complaints received. In other words, although the PCC Review is too coy to spell this out, these were complaints about the way in which a significant number of newspapers turned the Twin Towers tragedy and its aftermath into yet another opportunity to indulge in the some of the most revolting examples of Islamophobia and refugee-baiting yet seen in the British press.

Nor does it reveal that one of these complaints was actually brought, in an unprecedented step, by the NUJ itself against the Express, many of whose employees were becoming increasingly sickened at being forced by its owner and editor to run such hate-fuelling garbage. Hardly surprisingly, given its long and dishonourable history of refusing to take seriously both press racism and undue proprietorial/editorial pressure on journalists, the ever-reliable PCC merely side-stepped the issue, claiming that the complaint had been brought under the wrong section of its Code.

As always, the majority (58%) of complaints concerned accuracy. One third of all complaints received turned out to be outside the PCC’s conveniently narrow, self-imposed remit; inevitably these included the numerous third party complaints from which the PCC has always been so keen to protect itself. It would, of course, be entirely unreasonable for a body dedicated to upholding ‘the highest possible standards of newspaper reporting’ and ‘raising standards of journalism’ to have to entertain complaints from pesky, interfering busybodies with the temerity to complain that those standards are not being upheld in the cases of stories in which they themselves are not directly involved.

In the case of a further 30% of complaints: ‘either no breach of the Code was established, or no further action was required by the Commission after an appropriate offer by an editor to remedy any possible breach’. In the end, the Commission issued a full adjudication on only 41 complaints, upholding 19 and rejecting 22. Thus – and these, of course, are the figures which the PCC Review doesn’t actually spell out – it adjudicated only 1.4% of the complaints it received, and upheld a mere 0.6% of these. Small wonder, then, that the PCC can boast that it’s the ‘quickest of any of the media regulators’ since the greater part of its job appears to consist of refusing, in one way or another, to deal with large numbers of the complaints which it receives!

Furthermore, since the PCC is funded by newspapers themselves, and thus can never take a pro-active role in censuring, let alone raising, press standards in any meaningful way, it can only ever be reactive, thus effectively placing the burden of spotting and complaining about breaches of its Code on members of the public.

Thus: victim of a media scrum? Have no fear – the PCC will ‘issue guidance to individuals who find themselves the subject of media harassment’. So that’s all right then – no need, of course, for the PCC to ‘issue guidance’ to the employees of the journalists concerned, let alone order them to call off the pack.

Refugee or asylum seeker demonised by the Express? No problem – the PCC has ‘undertaken a substantial amount of work with groups involved in the care of refugees and asylum seekers to explain the work of the Commission and how individuals can complain about inaccurate or discriminatory treatment’ – never mind the fact that they may not speak English, or may be in gaol or have rather more pressing concerns than their treatment by the press on their minds.

Given the onus which the PCC puts on complainants in the first place, and the efforts to which it goes in those cases which it hasn’t already rejected to effect some sort of agreement between editor and complainant (the PCC is ‘a body with dispute resolution at its heart’ as the Review inimitably puts it), it is also nonsense to claim that ‘it costs nothing to complain’. As I know to my cost, complaining to the PCC is an extremely time-consuming business, and time, for most people, is money.

There are also other kinds of costs to bear in mind: one of the journalists about whom I complained threatened to sue me. Moreover, after the unfortunate Anna Ford had complained to the PCC about the Mail’s intrusive (though not, naturally, in the PCC’s view) shots of her on a beach, she had to put up with a boorish piece in the Independent in which Lord Wakeham effectively told her that the pictures were all her own fault and that if she didn’t like being photographed then she should have kept off the beach in the first place. Meanwhile, a Mail leader denounced her as ‘not a proper journalist’. But, there again, one of the foremost members of the PCC is a certain Paul Dacre.

As always, the PCC Annual Review never misses an opportunity to praise self-regulation and to criticise any alternatives. In past years, the dreaded alternative has been statutory regulation, but this year it’s the Courts and, in particular, the threat of a privacy law which some have claimed could be created via the Human Rights Act. This idea, according to the Review, is ‘based far more on myth than reality’, and it goes on to argue that the Anna Ford, Naomi Campbell and Gary Flitcroft cases have all, in fact, had the effect of ‘buttressing self regulation’, the judgements in these cases building on ‘the PCC’s common sense law…that celebrities who court publicity can undermine their long-term rights to personal privacy’. Indeed, according to Robert Pinker, the acting Chairman of the PCC, it is up to the organisation to ‘show that we will, in many ways, be tougher than the courts in defining and outlining legitimate areas of public interest’, although just how this is to be achieved remains a complete mystery.

However, once we’ve got past the inevitable self-satisfied crowing over the Ford, Flitcroft and Campbell cases (surely rather premature in the matter of the last two, since these were settled only this year and thus should fall outside the scope of a Review devoted to 2001, especially as the Campbell case is being appealed), certain awkward gaps soon become apparent.

For example, there’s no mention of the case of Amanda Holden who, in June, after the Star had published pictures of her sunbathing topless, deliberately bypassed the PCC as ineffectual and went straight to the courts to obtain an ex parte injunction under the terms of the Human Rights Act which temporarily banned the paper from publishing further photos. The ban, however, became effectively permanent when Star owner Richard Desmond, presumably fearful that losing the case would make it more difficult for him and his fellow tabloid owners to publish similar circulation-boosting pictures in future, caved in, offered Holden around £40,000 and published a grovelling apology in the paper.

So it is therefore considerably less than honest, indeed I’d claim that it could well breach the accuracy clause in the PCC’s own code, for the Review to claim that: ‘there is no evidence of individuals – whether in or out of the public eye – “bypassing the PCC” and going straight to court’.

Furthermore, the way in which the Campbell case is presented is also open to question. For example, it’s extremely hard to see how, according to the Review, one of the implications of the case can possibly be that: ‘injunctions on matters relating to privacy under the guise of confidentiality should…now be extremely difficult to obtain’. Whatever the arguments about the wider ramifications of the outcome of the case, one thing that is clear is that the judge ruled that Campbell’s confidentiality had indeed been breached, for which she was awarded £3,500 damages. Furthermore, he also stated that: ‘although many aspects of the private lives of celebrities and public figures will inevitably enter the public domain, in my judgement it does not follow that, even with self-publicists, every aspect and detail of their private lives are legitimate quarry for the journalist. They are entitled to some space of privacy’.

These are, of course, complex and controversial matters, but serious discussion of them is hardly helped by the PCC treating the ramifications of the Human Rights Act in as one-sided, self-interested and tendentious a fashion as some of the papers which it’s supposed to be regulating. Nor, in this context, should we forget that in November, when Lord Justice Jack invoked the Act to prevent the Sunday People from naming Gary Flitcroft, Lord Wakeham didn’t hesitate to use that paper’s columns to mount an intemperate attack on the decision, alongside its editor Neil Wallis, who is – yes, you guessed – himself a member of the Commission. So, no risk of partiality there, obviously.

However, for all its presentation of bad news as good, and for all its talk of being ‘unashamedly dedicated to some of the good news about the PCC that people hear about too little’, even this Candide-like document can’t altogether hide the fact that the PCC has been having an increasingly rough ride of late. Thus it coyly admits that: ‘it would be folly to seek to pretend that the months since the publication of the PCC’s last Annual Review have been straightforward ones’, hints mysteriously at ‘turbulent times’, and complains that the PCC’s work is ‘sometimes misunderstood, appreciated too little’ and dogged by ‘ill-founded misconceptions’.

The truth of the matter is, however, that the year which began with the a star-studded Tenth Anniversary bash ended with the PCC at one of the lowest ebbs in its history. Things began to go wrong when more liberal-minded newspapers criticised the Ford adjudication; then unease was expressed in various press quarters over what appeared to be the ‘brokerage’ role which the PCC played in the story of the Countess of Wessex’s interview with the News of the World‘s fake sheikh. Nor could all of this simply be explained by the usual ill will which rival newspapers and press groups habitually bear each other.

As early as April, Peter Preston in the Observer was noting that: ‘whatever success Lord Wakeham of the PCC claims for his efforts, the greatest sceptics are the ones emerging from inside the industry he serves…Slowly, inexorably, journalism seems to be splitting between the gentlemen and the players. That was the divide the PCC was invented to bridge’. Further consternation erupted in July when the PCC refused to censure the Sun for paying money to the family of returning bank robber Ronnie Biggs, the Independent heading its stinging editorial: ‘This spineless regulator has let down itself, the press and the public’.

In October the Sunday People published photos of Radio 1 DJ Sara Cox which quite clearly drove a coach and horses right through the PCC Code of Conduct – even though a prominent member of the committee which oversees the Code is People editor Neil Wallis – causing the Guardian to run an indignant leader entitled: ‘Self-regulation pays – and how!’. It’s also worth noting, in the light of our earlier discussion, that Cox is suing both the People and paparazzi agent Jason Frazer under the Human Rights Act.

Then the Telegraph joined the fray, which increasingly looks like splitting the press cleanly in two. And so it goes on – once again leaving one to question the PCC’s veracity – not to mention its grip on reality – when its acting Chairman claims apropos his predecessor, who, after all, departed under somewhat inauspicious circumstances, that: ‘when he left, the PCC was in a strong, robust and authoritative state – its existence beyond question, safe’ – although he did have the sense to add: ‘at least for the time being’.

Julian Petley

(Bulletin No 69)

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