The Press Complaints Commission needs to look beyond the usual ‘quango kings and queens’ and the House of Lords and make its key appointees more representative.
This is the view of former PCC commission member and secretary of the D-Notice committee Nick Wilkinson who is among those to respond to a review of the governance of the PCC instituted by the watchdog’s chairman, Peta Buscombe.
Wilkinson says the PCC needs to face up to “lingering views that the PCC is neither genuinely independent of editors, nor genuinely representative of the expectations of the public”.
He says that the PCC board which decides on complaints is widely perceived as being dominated by editors – seven out of the 17 members of the commission are editors – and he says that heavier weighting is needed towards lay commissioners from outside the press.
Of the existing lay commissioners he says they “are not perceived as being representative of the wider public, but as middle-aged, middle-class, metropolitan, Judaeo-Christian, usually white, ‘quango kings and queens’. More pro-active encouragement to those of wider backgrounds to apply for these appointments is needed.”
He says that the lay, or public commissioners as he calls them, need to meet regularly to discuss whether the are “adequately representing public expectations”, adding: “This would not destroy the respectful relationship between editor and public commissioners that currently exists, but it would all be less inappropriately cosy.”
Wilkinson added that the credibility of the Code Committee, which draws up the Editors’ Code of Practice, would be “greatly enhanced” by the addition of three public commissioners. Currently it is exclusively made up of editors.
He says: “It would publicly get away from the current situation where the public (and editor) commissioners are in reality merely asked to rubber-stamp what has already been decided by the Code Committee.”
Wilkinson points out that the fact the chairman of the PCC is appointed by the press, via the Press Standards Board of Finance (which funds the PCC) is “regarded by critics as further evidence that the PCC is not truly independent”.
Referring to the fact that several senior office holders at the PCC are members of the House of Lords he says: “There has been some wry comment that the PCC has become a House of Lords ‘benefit’; the Appointments Commission at least should perhaps be a little more representative of the wider and less exalted public.”
The PCC Governance Review was announced in August and is being led by Vivien Hepworth, who was a member of the PCC from 2001 to 2009.
It has a brief to look at the operation of the PCC board, sub-committees and secretariat; how transparency in the system can be enhanced; whether accountability can be improved and also the PCC’s Articles of Association.