It will probably surprise many people — I wish I could say it surprised me — to know that the Press Complaints Commission still thinks it has a future. If recent weeks have taught us anything about the PCC, you might think, it is that the so-called regulator has failed to uphold press standards and a new approach is needed. The prime minister thinks so, Labour thinks so, the public thinks so and the Leveson inquiry has been asked to devise that new approach. The PCC is doomed, and you would struggle, these days, to find a supporter who did not have a strong interest in the status quo.
But go to the PCC website and you will find something like defiance. We do a great job helping people with complaints, they say. A lot of the criticism we endure is unfair. Hacking was a matter for the law and not for us. Yes, there is a need for reform, even fundamental reform, but in the end you must come back to something like the PCC or democracy will be endangered.
This is misleading and smacks of self-delusion. The PCC’s failures did not begin with hacking; hacking is just the last and heaviest straw. The PCC, when it had its chance, gave the News of the World a clean bill of health on hacking although the same evidence led MPs on the media select committee to conclude that the paper was gravely at fault and senior executives were displaying ‘collective amnesia’. The PCC also criticised the Guardian, which broke the key hacking story in 2009. The MPs and the Guardian have been proved right and the PCC wrong.
Why was the PCC wrong? Because it is a complaints agency and doesn’t know what to do when a big problem comes along. In the McCann case it did nothing while for a year newspapers indulged in an orgy of libels — they have since admitted to publishing hundreds of false articles, possibly more than a thousand, grossly misleading millions and millions of readers. Like hacking, this was apparently not the PCC’s business.
Nor is the failure of accountability in the tabloid press the PCC’s problem. Again and again we see these large libel payouts, the latest to Chris Jefferies, the retired Bristol teacher so disgracefully treated in the tabloids. Has the PCC ever followed up such cases to see why lessons are not learned? Have they ever asked about internal systems and accountability in these papers? Have they asked about discipline? There is no sign of it.
Such matters are too big for the PCC. Its concern is the micro — individual complaints, and (largely) only those which are made by the people personally affected. This has nothing obvious to do with standards, though the argument was often made that by chasing up such complaints the PCC would effect a general raising of standards in the press. It has been nearly 20 years since the PCC began work and we are entitled to ask: has there been a general raising of standards? No.
The complaints work is worthwhile and something like it will be needed in the future. Few people dispute that. It does not follow that to meet our present needs all we have to do is improve the complaints agency. Though the PCC seems to be the very last to recognize this, we need radical change. We need a regulator.
As for the need to balance regulation with freedom of expression, that is a challenge the Leveson Inquiry will address and which it is perfectly capable of addressing successfully. It will have many options before it, and you can read some ideas here. To suggest that the only way to achieve a balance is to stick with a structure that has failed is nonsense. Far from being chained to the PCC we are about to discard it, and very few people who care about press freedom and press standards will be sorry to see it go.
This post is cross-posted with Hacked Off
Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University London. He tweets at @BrianCathcart