Why Lord Puttnam is wrong about the PCC
Labour peer's call to end the self-regulation system if newspapers do not "improve their behaviour within a year" would endanger press freedom. The PCC's Stephen Abell asks: Does Puttnam really want a public body to dictate the tone of political coverage?
30 Jun 10

Labour peer’s call to end the self-regulation system if newspapers do not “improve their behaviour within a year” would endanger press freedom. The PCC’s Stephen Abell asks: Does Puttnam really want a public body to dictate the tone of political coverage?

I am very glad of the opportunity to comment more fully on the comments made recently by Lord Puttnam. It is absolutely right that the work of the Press Complaints Commission is scrutinised, discussed, and criticised, so we can look towards making it better. I would, of course, prefer it if it were based on well-informed and considered comment about our role and performance. Last night, sadly, Lord Puttnam offered neither.

What he appears to have done is called the PCC (or the environment in which it operates) a “snakepit” and said that newspapers should be given a year to “improve their behaviour” in some unquantifiable manner. As it turns out, the Labour peer and deputy chairman of Channel 4 has actually entered the snakepit and used the PCC on two occasions. Both of which led him to praise the service we offered him. At the time he wrote to us saying the following:

I would also like to take the opportunity to say how very grateful I am for both the speed and quality of the service I received from the PCC. I had no reason to expect anything less, but I assure you it’s very much appreciated. [Emphases his].

Now this does not mean the whole system overseen by the PCC is perfect, but what it shows is that Lord Puttnam was willing privately to recognise our value, but publicly eager to heap calumny on us. I find that objectionable.

He has since sought to clarify his criticisms, telling

I believe the PCC does a pretty good job of handling individual complaints from those who feel themselves to have been in some way traduced. What they cannot do is prevent the slow reduction of politics to a form of gruesome spectator sport. Nor can they ensure the general representation of young people is more representative of reality.

I think here we have the basis for an important debate, which would have been preferable to the sideline sniping. Lord Puttnam is keen to assert that the PCC “cannot” instruct newspapers to be nicer to politicians and young people (two items on his wish list), without pausing to ask the question: should it? There must be the argument that if any body — even a self-regulatory body like the PCC — were to dictate the tone of political coverage, or suggest that there should be more positive stories on youth issues, the result would be a very significant restriction on freedom of expression.

Free expression must include the right to be critical and polemical, partisan and strident. I am afraid that it has been distorted by some of its supporters to mean the freedom to express only palatable, consensus views.

However, and this is very important, he is right that the PCC must be active agents in maintaining newspaper standards. The coverage of politics, or of issues affecting the young, are two important areas. The PCC must ensure that we hold editors to account for what they report and how they report it. We must ensure that inaccuracies are corrected, intrusions and distortions prevented.

The method by which to do this is to ensure that everyone is engaged in the PCC system, and makes good use of it. We certainly want to ensure that the activities of young people (although I am reluctant to characterise “the young” as a special interest group, as it feels slightly patronising) are reported accurately.

The PCC has done quite a lot of work in trying to open itself to young people, so that we can make their voice heard about how they are covered in the press. Last year we took part in a consultation organised by the Institute for Global Ethics, examining portrayals of young people in the media. This year, we were involved in research being conducted by the Media Trust about the feasibility of creating a media centre as a resource for journalists and young people. We have been in touch with the recently-formed Youth Media Council to discuss common aims and objectives. We regularly speak to school groups to explain the role of the PCC. We are speaking tomorrow at a conference on the subject of child bereavement.

There is no doubt we can do more. So, the PCC will use these thoughts from Lord Puttnam constructively, accepting that another manifestation of free expression, alongside a partisan press, is undue criticism from grumpy peers.

Stephen Abell is director of the Press Complaints Commission