Press reform: a local view

Calls for reform of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) should be being viewed with alarm by the regional press.

On the face of it, based on the News of the World’s atrocious behaviour in hacking into the phones of the victims of murder and disaster, reform of the PCC would seem to be a reasonable response.

But members of the public should first realise that when media commentators talk about ‘the press’ running roughshod over the public, what they really mean is a handful of national tabloids.

The regional press – such as the Chronicle or the Sentinel in Stoke or the Knutsford Guardian or whoever – does not do this. And if you think the nationals in some way dominate the newspaper market, also realise this: while five million people read a national paper every day, 12 million of you read your local newspaper.

Using some journalistic licence, that means that nearly three times as many people read the regional press as the national.

And the regional press lives in real fear of the PCC, and being forced to print a report saying the paper has made an error.

You may well work in a shop or an office.

Imagine if you had a trade body that could review complaints from your customers and that it made an adverse ruling. You’d have to post a giant notice in the window saying your business had let down its customers. It would be embarrassing and not very pleasant at all.

That’s the equivalent of a PCC adjudication against a newspaper. No newspaper editor wants to print one. The PCC is real force on the regional press and works well.

Moreover it is free, fast and fair.

It’s free to both newspapers and readers (though papers have to pay a levy to a separate, independent funding body).

And it IS fair – the majority of members are lay people, not editors, so the latter can always be outvoted. You can be assured that when a complaint is made, we certainly don’t feel that the PCC is ‘on our side’. At best it seems to be impartial and most of the time it seems to weigh the evidence in favour of the reader.

And the PCC is fast. If you make a complaint, the adjudication is through in a matter of weeks, something that’s important to readers when their local paper gets something wrong.

The danger of the current row over phone hacking is that some MPs might want to stifle the press, particularly after the antics of a minority of MPs and their expense claims brought shame on Parliament.

The PCC is currently an independent body that is not an official entity of the state, and as we said, free.

If the MPs talking about a statutory body get their way, it would make the PCC a different beast. Giving it a legal standing would mean that lawyers would get involved, and it would immediately become expensive and complicated.

Instead of being simple and quick, people could mount legal challenges, ask for judicial reviews and so on.

Some leaders of the newspaper industry have appeared on television trying to defend the News of the World, but its antics are indefensible. Hopefully its closure will mean the end to a raft of appalling journalistic practices that the ‘red tops’ continually undertake, from hacking into phones to simply making stories up.

As a side issue, there’s also much criticism being made about political leaders cosying up to Rupert Murdoch, because of the influence his papers can have on elections. This highlights another difference between the national and the regional press – the latter does not take a political stance. We’re even-handed and fair with everyone, regardless of political stance, whereas the nationals usually have a strong political bias.

If the current row forces some of the nationals to clean up their acts, it would be a good thing.

But abolishing the PCC and replacing it with something sterner or less flexible would be very unfair on the regional press, which abides by the PCC’s code of conduct, works hard to be decent and lives in real fear of an adverse ruling.

Jeremy Condliffe is the editor of the Congleton Chronicle, and this piece first appeared as an editorial on Thursday 14th July. It is reproduced by kind permission of the author.