Reforming the PCC: babies and bathwater

Politicians, lawyers and some journalists have lined up to attack the PCC over the last fortnight. The Prime Minister said that “the way the press is regulated today is not working” and that we need “a new system entirely”. The Deputy Prime Minister said the PCC “has failed as an effective watchdog”. The leader of the opposition called it a “toothless poodle”. Even the Daily Mail said that the self-regulatory body was in serious need of reform.

On one level these attacks are fair. The PCC did fail to deal with phone hacking and other forms of illegal information gathering. The PCC is not an independent self-regulator as it calls itself. The system of press self-regulation is unable to initiate, investigate, or sanction. It does, as the Prime Minister suggested, need radical reform.

A new press regulatory body appears inevitable. But it will be important not to lose the good work of the PCC when trying to deal with its failures.

There is no question that over the last few years the Media Standards Trust has been one of the strongest critics of the current system of press self-regulation and of the PCC’s role within this. In February 2009 we published a stinging report about the failures of the self-regulatory system. As it currently operates and is constituted, the report concluded, ‘the system is not effective enough, accountable enough, transparent enough or sufficiently reflective of the transformed media environment’.

However, the Trust has always tried to distinguish between mediation, at which the PCC works very hard and provides an important service to many, and regulation, which the PCC was never designed or resourced to do.

The PCC mediates with newspapers on behalf of individuals. This means that when someone contacts it with a complaint – about inaccuracy, misrepresentation, intrusion etc. – then it listens to the complaint and, if it thinks it is fair, will approach the editor of the newspaper responsible and ask for a response. It has no real powers and so relies on negotiation and persuasion.

Within these narrow parameters the PCC works well. The bright, courteous, hard working secretariat do their utmost to listen to the individual complainants and do the best they can on their behalf. They work with very limited resources, a highly constrained remit, and have been hampered by poor chairmanship. But the service they provide is important and one that would be great shame to lose.

Mediation is different from regulation. Regulators in other industries – whether it is banking, or law, or medicine or advertising – have the resources and remit to conduct investigations, the powers to impose sanctions if they discover malpractice, and a responsibility to act in the interests of the public, rather than simply in the interests of an individual complainant. They are also independent of the industry they are regulating. The PCC is none of these things.

Unfortunately the press, and the PCC, have deliberately blurred the distinction between mediation and regulation. The PCC calls itself an independent self-regulator, yet it is neither independent nor is it a regulator.

Presumably some in the press blurred the line in the belief that it was in their self-interest to avoid any constraints that might come with real self-regulation.

Instead, by blurring the line, some of those in the press have prevented necessary reforms of the system and now brought about the almost inevitable death of the PCC in its current form.

Radical reform of the PCC, though necessary, puts the valuable mediating function it plays at risk. If this went it would represent a loss to many people who want someone to listen to their individual complaint and want help in dealing directly with newspapers. Though this is not regulation it is a useful and valued service. In the process of reform we should try to remember this.