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The PCC, the Daily Mail and discrimination

Once again, the effectiveness of the Press Complaints Commission is back in the news – a question that has recurred since the PPC was established. This time it is a response to the Commission’s rejection of complaints about a Daily Mail column following Stephen Gately’s death.

The Commission rejected the complaint that the article was inaccurate. The Code’s accuracy clause applies only to statements of fact, and the Commission found the column to be one of opinion – so that point is quite straightforward. The other two grounds of complaint rejected by the PCC were not so clear cut. These were: 1) that the newspaper did not handle the complainant’s personal grief with sensitivity and 2) that the article contained prejudicial and perjorative references to Gately’s sexual orientation. On the latter point, the Commission rejected the claim as it was ‘not possible to identify any direct uses of pejorative or prejudicial language in the article’ and concluded:

There was a distinction between critical innuendo – which, though perhaps distasteful, was permissible in a free society – and discriminatory description of individuals, and the Code was designed to constrain the latter rather than the former.

This interpretation suggests a limited reading of the Code, which only covers the most blatant discriminatory language (which is consistent with the PCC’s previous decisions). Whether the Code should be more demanding in its standards will depend on what roles we think the press should perform. Free speech and the discussion of public affairs are clearly a priority. Yet here the question is not whether such speech should be banned or even a fine imposed. Instead, the question is whether the newspaper should publish the PCC’s adjudication (the final sanction for breach of the PCC Code). So you can argue the merits either way.

In any event, the PCC’s decision in this case is of less consequence. The PCC received 25,000 complaints and the Daily Mail was greated with a considerable amount of negative publicity. This probably did more than a PCC ruling, as the ruling mentions:

there were a number of forums in which challenges could be made to the columnist’s opinion. Ultimately, this was evidence of a healthy system, in which an initial viewpoint could be so publicly analysed and countered. Both the newspaper and the columnist were confronted with the impact of what had been published. This published adjudication by the PCC is another means by which general discontent can be registered in the form of a public judgment, even though the Commission has not found a breach of the Code.

The difficulty arises when the subject of the article is not a celebrity and does not attract a level of public sympathy which mobilises a mass online protest.

Aside from this are all the broader questions about the PCC – whether it is sufficiently independent to be a regulator, whether it inspires public confidence, whether it has any effect on the behaviour of the press, and so on. These are likely to be in the news next week when the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee publishes their long awaited report on press standards, privacy and libel. That Committee looked at the PCC in 2003 and 2007. On the former occasion, the Committee proposed that the PCC consider introducing financial penalties and called for statutory privacy laws. The Committee moved away from that stance in 2007, arguing that introducing fines ‘would risk changing the nature of the organisation and might need statutory backing to make the power enforceable’ and finding that it would be impossible to draft a privacy law that is ‘both specific in its guidance but also flexible enough to apply fairly to each case.’

Let’s see what they have to say on Wednesday.

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