The chairman of the Press Complaints Commission has hit back after a series of criticisms were levelled at the industry watchdog following publication of its report into alleged phone hacking last week.
Opening the annual Society of Editors conference, last night, Baroness Peta Buscombe told delegates the PCC did “everything it could” to investigate allegations raised in the Guardian newspaper that phone hacking was wide-spread.
She also appeared to pour cold water on the suggestion the commission could be enhanced with investigative powers, although conceded the issue could be examined.
A number of MPs had accused the PCC of a “whitewash” after it produced a report claiming there was no fresh evidence of phone tapping at the News of the World.
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger rubbished the findings saying they were “worse than pointless” and called for the powers of the “weak” regulator to be enhanced to establish some form of investigatory mechanism.
Delivering her first high-profile public speech since succeeding Sir Christopher Meyer as PCC chairman in April, she said: “It has been a surprise in recent days to hear a call from some of those who are benefiting from this historic shift for the PCC to be reconstituted as some sort of formal regulator with quasi-legal powers.”
Buscombe went on to defended the commission and the current system of self-regulation saying she had: “yet to hear a constructive alternative to what we do.”
Responding to a question about last week’s report into phone-hacking in a Q&A session following her address, she said the PCC had to be careful not to “step on the toes” of established investigative organisations like the police.
She said: “We were looking into all the evidence that was presented to us. We did everything we could to see if there was any evidence that we had been misled.
“I’m not sure what sort of powers we would need to do more. The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, no more evidence has come to them, other than one email.
“Am I supposed to go into News International, or any other newspaper group, and pin someone to the floor until they come up with something? I know that sounds flippant, but I’m at a loss to know what was meant by ‘further investigative powers’.
“We took oral evidence from a number of people. But even if we brought in lawyers it wouldn’t have made any difference, I think.
“There were people that said there was more than meets the eye, but they were never prepared to say what. They never produced any evidence and they expect me to. It’s very difficult.”
During her address Buscombe told the conference, in Stansted, Essex, use of so-called “super-injunctions” was an “anathema to democracy”.
Oil company Trafigura and its law firm Carter-Ruck caused public outcry last month when it emerged they had unsuccessfully attempted to use a wide-ranging gagging order to prevent The Guardian reporting a Parliamentary question relating to the oil firm.
Buscombe called for the government to curb the future use of such injunctions.
She said: “The idea that a judge who may be no expert in the field can dish out so-called super-injunctions – preventing us from even knowing that he or she has restrained publication – is insulting to the public and anathema to democracy.
“As a Parliamentarian, I do not recall ever debating this proposition, or agreeing that lawyers could scuttle off to the High Court in order to keep true but embarrassing information out of the public domain.
“Nor do I recall it being suggested that Parliament would be prevented by the law itself from scrutinising how the law was developing.
“This is a constitutional outrage. Now that the secret is out, the government must do something about it without delay.”
Buscombe said the most benign aspect of the Trafigura affair was that it showed a “touching naÃ¯vetÃ©” by the company’s lawyers that information could be kept secret.
She said: “In a world where individuals can communicate en masse and bypass traditional media altogether, it is just no longer possible to restrict the free flow of information from the top down. The sooner that regulators, legislators and lawyers realise this the better.”
She then went on to warn commercial media companies they face a bleak future unless they work with search engines, like Google, to find a new business model.
She said a solution was needed as the fragile state of the media industry had a negative knock on effect on the quality journalism produced and risked media plurality.
Buscombe urged rival publishers to work together to find a solution to internet search engines that: “think it’s OK to enjoy the use of all your valuable intellectual property and ad revenues for little or no return.”
She said: “Unless you stand as one strong voice to consider the future of the creative industries, including commercial media, the outlook will remain bleak.
“Together the press, all commercial broadcasters, film, book publishing and music industries must now work together to find a new business model with the search engines…
“And for those who think this challenge is just too hard, I urge you to recall the recent words of Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO: ‘We use as our primary goal the benefit to end users. That’s who we serve.’ So there you have it: the end user matters, not those who create content in the first place.
“Frankly, I think Google are having a laugh at your expense.”