If only people knew more about the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), says its public affairs director Will Gore, they could learn to love it.
The body was set up in 1991 from the ruins of the Press Council, but Gore says that despite having existed for nearly 20 years, there are still “massive issues of perception” around it.
“There are a lot of people who don’t [know how effective the PCC is],” he tells journalism.co.uk. “The encouraging thing is that of the 60-65 per cent that did have a view on effectiveness in the last survey, three quarters thought the PCC was effective or very effective.
“When people know more I think they have quite a positive view.”
Gore, who has worked at the PCC for 10 years, cites the view that it is run by the newspaper industry as one of the most common misconceptions.
“When you actually explain to people that all of the staff here are non-journalists, that the majority of committee members are nothing to do with the industry … they go ‘Oh okay, it’s not quite what I thought.’”
He’s also keen to dispel the idea that the PCC won’t consider headlines or third-party complaints on points of fact, although he admits it used to be “much stricter” on who could complain. Contrary to what its detractors claim, he says, the PCC does make a difference to newspapers’ reporting.
“If you look at newspapers 20 or 25 years ago, the level of intrusiveness into the lives of ordinary people is not as severe as it was, the levels of outright discrimination against individuals is not as severe as it was, the homophobia that was so prevalent and a lot of the racist attitudes have improved,” he says.
One common criticism of the PCC is that it has no power to fine newspapers for serious or repeated breaches of the Code of Conduct, but Gore says that this “massively underestimates” the impact of the PCC’s adjudications on newspapers and editors.
Even if fines were introduced, he doesn’t believe it wouldn’t prevent the worst reporting – after all, there are fines for libel and breaches of Ofcom’s code, but it doesn’t stop the rules being broken.
In fact, he says, the PCC’s option to demand an explanation from a publisher for repeated breaches has led to people losing their jobs, although he’s reluctant to give any details of private disciplinary matters.
Gore is also critical of people who don’t trust the PCC and so refuse to complain to it, saying that “to use that as an excuse to not bother complaining is a bit lame”.
“I’m not saying the PCC is a perfect organisation and I’m not here to sit around and defend the British press, but our view is that we want to encourage people to engage with us so we can engage with the industry and continue to raise standards.”
Newspapers, he says, rarely deliberately print stories they know aren’t true, and claims the “vast bulk are just cock-ups, or when something’s been left out and it changes the meaning”.
“The misconception is that newspapers will run stories to increase sales and it’ll increase sales so much that it doesn’t really matter what happens in terms of adjudication. It’s hard to see that a newspaper would make so much more money out of an outrageous story. If you put on 10,000 in sales and it’s a newspaper that sells for 20p, that’s nothing.”
He admits that the prominence of corrections, particularly for front-page stories, is still an issue, but insists that it’s improved since he started at the Commission.
“When I was first here we did let newspapers get away with an apology on page 36 and that has absolutely changed.
“We have had a number of occasions where there has either been an apology or a trail on the front page. Things are going in the right direction.”
Staunch opponents of the PCC are unlikely to agree, but Gore is adamant that, despite criticism, self-regulation remains the best system of accountability for the press.
“There will always be occasions when people make complaints to us and are absolutely convinced they’ve got it right and we don’t uphold it and people will then say ‘This just shows the PCC doesn’t deal with headlines or doesn’t deal with photos’.
“I think actually the system we currently operate is effective.”