The Press Complaints Commission enjoyed mainstream coverage this week, as newspaper titles lapped up the comments of the body’s chair, Lady Peta Buscombe, at the Society of Editors’ conference: she not only called for greater press support, but cited evidence allegedly showing that 6,000 attempted phone hackings were ‘wrongly quoted’ by solicitor Mark Lewis in the House of Commons.
Funnily enough, the papers who were so eager to report Buscombe’s words, didn’t then – save the Guardian it would seem – pick up Mark Lewis’ call for Buscombe’s resignation as PCC chair. You can read Lewis’ letter, sent to Buscombe, the select committee and copied to the Press Association, in full at this link.
Lewis has since told Journalism.co.uk:
“As I said in my [House of Commons] evidence, given immediately after that of Mr Yates [Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner], it wasn’t that I had access to documents that the police did not have, I got the documents from the police. Didn’t they read them? Didn’t they understand them?”
“The PCC has shown its true colours. If there is to be non-court regulation then it has to be from an independent tribunal that is not constituted by the press. Oddly, it would work in the press’ interest if there was a body that was willing to challenge and censor the press. As I said on Monday, we need an ‘honest and free press not just a free press’.
“My next step will be to carry on in the pursuit of honesty in reporting. If you are in any doubt, look at how many newspapers chose not to run a story that there had been a demand for Lady Buscombe to resign. The newspapers reported Lady Buscombe’s speech but not my response to it.”
Then, just as QC Geoffrey Robertson had hoped when he encouraged editors to abandon the body, news broke of Alan Rusbridger’s resignation from the PCC Code Committee.
“I have enjoyed being on the Code Committee, which does very useful work. I look forward to the results of the review of the PCC which Baroness Buscombe has announced. The PCC is a valuable mediator. It needs to ask itself whether, as presently constructed and funded, it is a very effective regulator,” was all that the Guardian editor had to say afterwards.
His comments last week, following the PCC’s less than critical findings about phone tapping activities at News of the World, were somewhat stronger: speaking on BBC Radio 4, the Guardian editor described the PCC’s report as ‘worse than pointless’. “If you have a self-regulation system that’s finding nothing out and has no teeth, and all the work is being done by external people, it’s dangerous for self-regulation,” he said.
The PCC has not yet responded to Journalism.co.uk’s request for comment over Rusbridger’s departure, but Buscombe today appeared on Radio 4 Media Show [as noted by Jon Slattery at this link]. Rusbridger is right, she said. “We don’t have serious powers of investigation. We are not a police force. Even Ofcom doesn’t have it. A state regulator doesn’t have it. We cannot and we must not tread on the toes of the criminal justice system. We act in many ways more as a mediator, so that we actually stop and prevent harm and therefore have a very strong role in terms of pre-publication, for example,” she said.
So what’s the point of the body at all? MP Tom Watson, who sat on the House of Commons culture and media select committee for the phone hacking inquiry, thinks not much. Running the PCC like a clan has led to Rusbridger’s resignation, he said on Tuesday. “It could spell the end of self-regulation. How silly of the new chair,” he tweeted. While in favour of self-regulation, the PCC simply isn’t doing it, he later clarified in another tweet: “[I] believe in self-regulation. And I’d like to see the PCC try it some time.”
A toothless chocolate teapot as alleged by some, or is there a realistic future for the PCC? Investigations of the self-regulation body, such as the one launched by the International Federation of Journalists; the select committee’s inquiry; and the PCC’s own review (led by a former commission member) are anticipated with interest…
NB: This post was later updated with a corrected transcript from the Radio 4 Media Show (19.11.09).