PCC defends phone hacking report: ‘We can’t do things that the police can do’

The Press Complaints Commission yesterday denied it had mishandled its report into phone hacking, even though the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee found the body’s findings “simplistic and surprising”.

Speaking to journalists at the launch of its annual review for 2009, its director Stephen Abell, and chair, Baroness Peta Buscombe defended the report that was condemned by the Guardian and the Media Standards Trust.

Where the self-regulation body had failed, Stephen Abell said, was in explaining its function and what its powers could achieve.

But he said it had done what it set out to do: to investigate whether it had been misled in 2007 and whether incidents of phone hacking were ongoing.

“We have to be extraordinarily careful,” said Buscombe, “not to do anything that would interfere with other investigative powers, i.e. the police … we’re very careful not to tread on other toes.”

The Guardian’s allegations in July 2009, however, concerned activity in 2006/7, a point Journalism.co.uk put to the PCC’s chair, Peta Buscombe and director, Stephen Abell.

“It was reported, there were claims that it was ongoing,” said Abell, with which Buscombe agreed.

“It was also a suggestion that it was ongoing at the time, it was certainly reported that way and we made clear in 2009 that’s what we were interested in,” he said.

The inquiry launched in 2009 was responding to “notions” made to the PCC that it was ongoing, said Abell.

“I have been very clear that on my watch if it was happening, if there was a whiff of it we would be onto it straight away but we would have to be exceedingly careful,” argued Buscombe.

“We can’t do things that the police can do, if we were to do that we would have to be regulated by the state, which I think is a very bad path for the press to go in,” she said.

But did the PCC consider it had been misled, considering the subsequent court settlements – with Gordon Taylor – for example?

“Were we materially misled in the context of what we were trying to do in 2007? It wasn’t the function of the PCC to duplicate the police investigation in 2007,” said Abell.

“What we did in 2007, was look prospectively not retrospectively,” he said.

Would the PCC act upon any new allegations, such as more recent ones made by the Guardian? If there was “material evidence,” said Stephen Abell. It was important not to go off “speculation,” added Buscombe.

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