PCC Governance Review is window dressing, but the press watchdog isn't broken

Despite the recent furore over phone-hacking at the News of the World and the Jan Moir Daily Mail article about the death of Stephen Gately – there is no great appetite at the moment, either in the Government or the opposition, for the scrapping of the system of self regulation of the press.

So former PCC commissioner Vivien Hepworth’s review of the watchdog did not need to be too radical, and it isn’t.

Behind the window-dressing of 75 recommendations there are no new powers for the PCC and no fundamental changes to the make up of either the Commission itself – which decides whether publications have breached the code – or to the Code Committee.

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Most importantly, no new sanctions are suggested: Such as the fines or suspension of publication that the Commons media select committee suggested in February.

It is significant that the review talks about making public the minutes of PCC meetings, publicly admonishing editors and holding more hearings where journalists should answer for their crimes in person.

But although it talks about looking at ways to beef up existing sanctions, there is nothing in the report which explicitly states that a page-one cock-up should result in a page-one apology and clarification – something which critics of the press have long argued for, with some justification.

Arguably the biggest press scandal of recent years was the way the Express titles and others persisted in publishing innuendo linking the parents of missing three year-old Madeleine McCann, and Robert Murat, to her disappearance and possible murder in 2007.

The PCC has argued that the McCanns chose not to go down the self-regulatory route, preferring to sue through the courts, so there was little they could do.

But surely if a body like the PCC is to be worth anything, it should be able to step in to protect the vulnerable victims of a terrible tragedy from the excesses that the McCanns experienced.

So it is good news that the review calls for a more pro-active role for the PCC, with the power to initiate its own investigations without a formal complaint being lodged by those actively involved.

There is no call for investigatory powers to ensure that the PCC can get to the bottom of issues such as the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World which saw two staff from the paper jailed in 2007.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger resigned from the PCC last November in protest at the way it had dealt with the new allegations about phone-hacking that his paper had raised.

While there are many unanswered questions about the NoW phone-hacking scandal of 2006, it is unrealistic to think that a body like the PCC could possibly get to the bottom of it.

Despite more than 100 articles, and considerable investigative effort, The Guardian has yet to find the silver bullet which nails anyone else at the NoW beyond jailed duo Goodman and Mulcaire – so how could the PCC do so, without a massive increase in resources?

As for the Jan Moir Twitter-inspired furore. Her piece may have been in questionable taste, and upsetting to some, but no-one is suggesting that the PCC should start ruling on issues of taste.

There is no call for a fundamental change in the way in the way the PCC works in today’s report, because – although far from perfect – fundamentally the PCC isn’t broken.

Read the whole PCC Governance Review here.



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