No tears from NUJ as PCC waves goodbye for good

by - 9th March 2012, 8.20 BST

The NUJ has released a statement in response to the closure of the Press Complaints Commission.

General secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “Since Calcutt despaired of his creation in 1993 and called for its replacement with a statutory tribunal, the PCC’s many detractors and critics have consistently pointed to its failings, failings that have allowed the press to reach the point not just of immorality, but of outright criminality. Despite many opportunities and sustained lobbying by the NUJ and other groups such as Mediawise and the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, the PCC has failed repeatedly to seize the chance to reform. We are pleased that its closure has been announced today.

“The  PCC’s entire history and that of the Press Council before it, indeed all regulation of the press since the Second World War, is a tale of too little too late. It was the very structure of the PCC as an industry-fostered self-regulatory body that has led to its failure. Set up merely as a complaints body with no role in protecting the rights and freedoms of the press or public, working to a code drawn up solely by editors and a commission made up, initially at least, almost entirely of editors, it has spent most of its 22 years existence racing furiously to catch up with demands for reform.

“After Calcutt recommended its closure in 1993 it added more members of the public to its board in a bid to make it appear more open. It later almost expired in a round of vicious rows following the press’s inexhaustible appetite for gossip about Princess Diana; only the careful nurturing of John Wakeham allowed it a short if sickly recovery. Successors to the chairmanship either found the task too monumental or had insufficient appetite for reform to keep pace with increasing bad behaviour and further reforms were few and far between.

“Self-regulation has been given every possible chance to work in many different forms over the past 40 years and has failed the test every time. It is for this reason that for the past two years it has been the NUJ’s policy position – as set down by its democratic delegate meeting which forges and evolves policy on behalf of the 38,000 journalists in the union – that the PCC has shown itself to be incapable of genuine reform and that it must be dismantled and a new organisation created that cuts all links with the way business has been done in the past.

“It is important to remember that whilst press freedom is crucial to the rights of citizens and to a strong democracy, the press has no more right to make money through criminality or unethical behaviour than any other commercial organisation. We either reform the press to ensure it is capable of working with a self-regulatory system or we move to a different form of regulation or both.

“The NUJ does not believe that a rebranding – the PCC Mark 2 that is often referred to – would do anything other than repeat (yet again) all the past mistakes that have been made. It would do nothing to introduce the wholesale cultural shift that is necessary within the press to bring ethics and a natural compliance with the law to the forefront of all news gathering.

“The PCC itself was an attempt to rebrand the old Press Council, a rebranding that actually saw the weakening of press regulation from a body seen as largely useless to one that was not only useless but was actually on occasion complicit in allowing if not conniving at illegal and unethical activity.

“Regulation is a way of controlling the balance that must exist between freedom of expression and other universal human rights such as reputation, privacy, fair trial. Freedom of expression is vital to a fair, democratic society and is a right often best manifested by the media on behalf of the individual when subjecting the powerful to scrutiny. To suggest that only self-regulation is capable of doing this balancing act is to fly in the face of clear evidence that self-regulation has failed and that other systems can work extremely well for other industries or in other jurisdictions.

“The NUJ is no keener than anyone else on confusing protection of the rights of others with allowing governments or others in powerful positions to control what appears in the press for their own ends, and it certainly does not believe that press barons and editors should be allowed to interfere with the rights of privacy, fair trial and reputation of private citizens solely to maximise their own right to make a profit.

“The primary duty of any new body must be to ensure the freedom of the press. It must be free from interference from the state and politicians – and equally independent of the media owners and editors. The body needs to be free for users at point of access so that there is no financial impediment to complaints about standards. These are attributes that need to remain in a successor regulator and the service should be accessible to all and free from bureaucratic barriers that serve to slow the pace to ensure a speedy redress for those who believe they have been the victim of an injustice.

“The body needs to encourage good practice. This must include a Right of Reply allowing those who are the subject of harmful inaccuracies in a report to put the record straight. When errors are made editors must be encouraged to make corrections immediately and in good faith. Mistakes should be acknowledged with equal prominence to the offending article –such changes will over time serve to profoundly change behaviour within newsrooms.

“Where the good practice of a right of reply is believed to be inadequate, the new body should be open to take complaints about all aspects of editorial material published in newspapers or their associated websites. One of the main failings of the PCC has been its limitation on who may complain thus ensuring that complaints are largely limited to disputes about inaccuracies.

“Few cases ought to need the help of a professional conciliation service. Third party complaints are not normally allowed by the PCC yet it is complaints from third parties that have been most the significant in terms of reader outrage over the past 20 years, whether it was the infamous Jan Moir column concerning Stephen Gately, concerns over coverage of immigrants or pre-coverage of the world cup semi-final against Germany. All these issues brought large numbers of complaints but all were dismissed by the PCC as third party complaints outside their jurisdiction as a readers’ complaints body.

“It is also not acceptable that collective groups are unable to complain simply because they have not been identified personally when newspapers demonise vulnerable groups in society, such as the disabled or asylum seekers. Those impacted collectively should be able to complain and seek a right of redress. The regulator should then be able to use a code that can help to distinguish between causing harm to a vulnerable group and the right to comment or, if need be, even offend in the pursuit of the right to free expression.

“The NUJ will engage in every opportunity available to continue to argue for a new organisation that is fit-for-purpose and improves media accountability.”