Home > Media > Some new teeth for the Press Complaints Commission?

Some new teeth for the Press Complaints Commission?

The House of Commons just published its report on Press Standards, Privacy and Libel. Much of the coverage has focused on the allegations about journalists hacking into people’s answer phone messages, but the report is more wide ranging looking at a range of issues relating to privacy, libel and the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

Unsurprisingly, the Committee supported the principle of press self-regulation and does not propose the statutory regulation of the press (Calcutt did propose this in 1993). Nor does it propose getting rid of the body or maintaining the status quo. As with previous reports, the Committee takes a mid-way approach and proposes to keep the PCC, but to strengthen it. This approach goes down a fairly well trodden path of incremental reforms. The PCC has made changes following criticism in previous years, but this does not seem to stop the frequent questions on its effectiveness. Will these proposals be enough to stop the criticisms?

Many of the Committee’s criticisms of the PCC are not new – the usual arguments about its lack of independence, limited sanctions, its failure to be proactive, etc. There was also the customary reference to the body being ‘toothless’. However, the Committee also provides a more focused study of the PCC’s role in relation to the McCann case and Bridgend suicides.

The Committee argues that the PCC should impose financial penalties where there has been a serious breach of its Code of Practice for newspapers. A similar suggestion was made by the same Committee in 2003 – but this time it adds:

In the most serious of cases, the PCC should have the ultimate power to order the suspension of printing of the offending publication for one issue. This would not only represent a major financial penalty, but would be a very visible demonstration of the severity of the transgression.

Geoffrey Robertson criticises this proposal in the Guardian, comparing it to the licensing of the press. Not sure I agree – Ofcom already has similar powers to this. The merits of the proposal would depend on the size of the fines and the types of breach they were applied to. Nonetheless, this would be a major departure from the existing practice and a big step for the PCC to take. But would this get the support of the newspapers that bankroll the PCC? Proposals for a financial penalty have not been taken up in the past, is there any reason to think this time will be different?

The Committee also suggests changing the PCC’s name to the Press Complaints and Standards Commission and appointing a new deputy director for standards. The former is to provide a reminder that the self-regulatory body does not just respond to complaints, but can be proactive in ensuring compliance with the Code – but it is a fairly cosmetic change. The role of a deputy director is not made clear in the report – but I assume that it is to provide some overall monitoring of standards.

The Committee rejected the calls for a legal requirement for newspapers to notify individuals before publishing private information (Max Mosely has been the chief campaigner for such a reform). I think they are right to reject this given the difficulties in determining when such a legal duty would apply and the potential chill on public interest stories. However, the Committee thought that a prior notification clause should be added into the in the PCC’s clause – this is probably a more appropriate way to deal with the issue, where it can be dealt with more flexibly and developed as a matter of good practice rather legal duty.

The House of Commons cannot compel the PCC to adopt these proposals (although there are political/strategic reasons why the PCC might want to act on them). The PCC is currently undergoing a review of its governance, so it remains to be seen how many of the proposals are introduced.

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