William Gore, public affairs director of the Press Complaints Commission, defends the PCC against the attacks it's received over the phone hacking scandal.
The Press Complaints Commission have come in for an incredible amount of stick over the phone hacking scandal – including from Left Foot Forward; we offered the PCC the right to respond to such criticisms, so here, public affairs director William Gore defends the PCC
The phone-hacking scandal has been truly shocking. The outrages committed by individuals at the News of the World apparently in the name of journalism should never have happened. The fact that they did has begged questions of many people and many agencies. Journalists, politicians and the police are all under intense scrutiny.
The Press Complaints Commission (PCC), the body responsible for administering the newspaper industry’s Code of Practice, also faces calls for reform. Those calls are understandable.
After all, while it seems unlikely that any system of self-regulation could ever uncover criminality or prosecute it, the public may reasonably ask why ethics, as ultimately enshrined in the Code of Practice, seemed not to be at the top of the News of the World’s list of priorities.
So it is right that serious debates should take place about the ethical practices of British newspapers and magazines. It is also right that inquiries should be made of the system by which the press is regulated in this country. We at the PCC recognise that as keenly as anyone else.
As a result of the recent tumultuous events, there is an easy temptation to imagine that not much has changed in the 20 years since the PCC was set up. It is certainly true that some of the debates we are hearing now are strikingly similar to those that were going on in the months before the closure of the old Press Council in 1990. Yet in fact very considerable advances have been made in the last two decades, which it is vital not to ignore or forget.
The PCC was established primarily to administer a voluntary Code of Practice and to examine complaints from people who believed the Code had been breached. It was tasked with obtaining redress for those who had been wronged by the press. In that role it has clearly been successful. Thousands of individuals have, with the PCC’s help, received apologies, corrections, assurances about future behaviour and other remedies that have settled complaints to their satisfaction, speedily and at no cost.
Even those whose concerns are rejected generally feel satisfied with the thoroughness of the complaints system.
Perhaps because the PCC itself has set such store by the primacy of the complaints function, the evolution of its role in other areas has sometimes been overlooked or undervalued.
Yet the fact is that the Commission now involves itself in key matters including:
• Pre-publication advice to editors and complaints;
• Issuing ‘desist notices’ on behalf of those who find themselves in the eye of a media storm;
• Training of student and in-post journalists;
• Writing guidance on key topics of reporting; and
• Raising understanding of how to complain among key stakeholders.
The consequence of this evolution is that the PCC is a far superior body to its initial incarnation in 1991. Improvements are apparent in other matters too.
The Commission now regularly deals with what would – even ten years ago – have been dismissed as ‘third party’ complaints. The board of the Commission now has a 10-7 majority in favour of its public members (having started out with a majority of editors we now have the highest ratio of public to journalist members of any equivalent body in Europe).
Corrections and apologies are now very rarely published further back in the offending title than the original transgression – despite what some might believe.
Just as the PCC has evolved for the better so, in many respects, have standards of reporting across the newspaper and magazine industry – suicide and mental health are two issues that are far better understood and reported by journalists, thanks in no small part to the Commission’s work.
But it is not only that we should remember the improvements that the Commission has already undergone and overseen since its inception. We should also consider why it is that such a level of evolution has been possible, for the answer lies, I believe, in the fundamental basis of the existing structure as one of non-statutory regulation.
Time and again the PCC has faced challenges which required swift and effective solutions, often involving significant amendment to its practices, its procedures and its composition.
It would be hard to imagine all this being possible in a statutory environment.
Indeed, it is one of the interesting features of press self-regulation that, while it may not be perfect, it is the model of regulation that the majority of countries in Europe have settled on as providing the best means of achieving a balance between press freedom and responsibility. That is arguably because other systems tend to fall down under close scrutiny.
In the sensible debates about reform that will undoubtedly dominate the next 12 months we would do well to remember that it may be neither easier nor more desirable to start a new structure from scratch, than to remodel and extend one that already has solid walls and foundations.
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