Debate on the Future of the UK Press Complaints Commission

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The UK phone hacking scnadal has media observers questioning the UK Press Complaints Commission. (Credit: PCC, screenshot) isohunt, youtube to mp3

The UK media regulatory body the Press Complaints Commission has come under fire this month as more and more allegations surface against News International’s News of the World for phone hacking.

The Australian argued that the PCC is “unlikely to survive” the phone hacking scandal and the criticism directed at it.

In a July 14 speech, UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg called for accountability within the press, among other things, as StinkyJournalism previously wrote.  He claimed that the PCC “failed as an effective watchdog” and that the whole regulatory system must be redone.  He criticized the PCC for being “a complaints body at best, and a limited one at that” since the PCC can only act upon complaints.

Clegg also criticized the PCC’s lack of independence as it’s “run by the newspapers, for the newspapers, who act as their own judge and jury.”  He also criticized the PCC’s inability to require news outlets to abide by and join the PCC’s regulation.

In response, the Press Complaints Commission stated a desire to be more independent and commented that it doesn’t want to be a “convenient scalp” in the scandal.

Defense of PCC

In an article published by the Haringey Independent, PCC member Michael Smyth defended the PCC while noting that the PCC “had it coming” for taking “good faith assurances made about phone hacking” by the News of the World.

He commented that criticism of the PCC in light of the News of the World collapse “has not only been flagrantly self-serving but also willfully misleading” since the PCC’s members are mostly “lay men and women” without police authority.

Smyth highlighted the importance of the “more than 20,000 people a year” that the PCC works with because those people are “often among the most vulnerable in our society.”

“No politician can compel the Commission to commit institutional suicide, but the repeated cheap shots directed gratuitously at the Commission in recent days have unquestionably damaged it and put at risk its vital and generally unsung work of providing access to justice for those who cannot afford heads of communication or celebrity lawyers to speak for them.”

Likewise, former BBC chairman and current PCC member Lord Grade, argued that the PCC does help “ordinary members of the public.”

Suggestions for Media Regulation

The Guardian’s Lisa O’Carroll suggested “six questions” on media regulation, including if the PCC should be self-regulatory, if “individual journalists as well as organisations  [should] face penalties for errors, inaccuracies or ethical breaches,” and if regulators would have the power to fine outlets.

The Guardian’s Dan Sabbagh claimed that “the Press Complaints Commission is history in its current form” noting the News of the World’s final editorial stating that “Self-regulation does work. But the current makeup of the PCC doesn’t.”

Sabbagh called for readers to contribute ideas on how to make regulation work and questioned “is self-regulation dead?” and if it is “right” that the regulatory system doesn’t have any way to require news outlets to join, citing Richard Desmond’s Northern & Shell publications, which dropped out of the PCC in January. (See StinkyJournalism’s story on the seven print publications kicked out of the PCC here.)

John Kampfner, former New Statesman editor and current head of Index on Censorship, argued that the PCC as is serves as a “mediation service, not a regulator.” Kampfner commented. “So exactly what kind of media do we want? A new focus on standards, transparency and accountability can only be beneficial.”

In an unsigned “news analysis” report, the Belfast Telegraph argued that independent regulation is key. But, the Belfast Telegraph called for the PCC to be “truly independent,” more actively engaged with readers, to have the power of enforcement, and to to remove the “serving industry insiders” from the PCC.

A UK Telegraph editorial warned against a politically influenced regulation because

“As ‘super-injunctions’ have shown, the law has given those with the money to do so the ability to stifle discussion, and to prevent the publication of facts they find inconvenient. We can be sure that some politicians would, if given the chance, frame regulations in a way which would impede the investigation of serious wrongdoing by public figures, and even diminish the ability of the press to scrutinise and criticise government policy. This would be disastrous for the media, and for democracy.”

The Guardian’s Janine Gibson proposed options for the future of regulation including  a similar “body with somewhat tighter codes and levels of scrutiny” that avoids “politicians meddling in the freedom of the press,” “external regulation” or an alternative to both.

UPDATE: 07/25/2011 9:38 AM EST: Clarified that Michael Smyth, whose comments on the PCC were published by the Haringey Independent, does not work for the Haringey Independent.  Thanks to the PCC’s Catherine Speller for letting us know.  Smyth is “a public member of the PCC with no connection to the newspaper or magazine industry” and his article was “published in various local newspapers, including the Haringey Independent,” according to Speller.


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Debate on the Future of the UK Press Complaints Commission

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