The 'silly season' story no-one expected is news that the Press Complaints Commission intends to investigate itself. For the first time in 18 years, an allegedly 'independent review' is to be led by commissioner, Vivien Hepworth, who is 'stepping down early' to spend six months examining the way the PCC conducts its business.
There is something a tad disingenuous about appointing a member of the Commission to lead the reform group which will also include someone with 'senior experience of the newspaper and magazine industry'.
Scepticism may be assuaged if this turns out not to be an editor who has already served on the Commission, nor one whose publication has had to be censured. And it would be healthy if Ms Hepworth were to take on board one of the legion of the critics the PCC has attracted over the years.
More to the point, it is vital that those critics make their own submissions to Ms Hepworth. The National Union of Journalists and other journalists' organisations, may want to ask why working journalists have been excluded from both the PCC team and the Editors' Code Committee which sets its terms of reference.
The Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom will no doubt want to press her to explain why the PCC is being shielded from Freedom of Information requests. The Media Standards Trust, still smarting from the way in which its recent criticism was dismissed by the PCC, will want to present her with the findings of its continuing enquiries about preferable alternatives.
Certainly, MediaWise, perhaps the most vocal critical friend of self-regulation, will have a contribution to make based on its 16 years of experience in assisting complainants.
This is also an important opportunity for campaigners and charities to speak up for the sectors of society most vulnerable to inaccurate, intrusive or downright prejudicial coverage. These civil society groups are often best placed to represent the interests of asylum-seekers and refugees, people with mental health issues, young people, hospital patients, victims of crime, relatives of disaster victims, families of prisoners, etc.
Yet, third party complaints are in the main, rejected by the PCC. What is more the Editors' Code continues to allow discriminatory stories to be published so long as no individual is named – thereby sidestepping the possibility of first person complaints.
It is to be hoped that readers of newspapers and magazines will be encouraged to express their views, via the free advertising offered to the PCC. However, it is unlikely that Ms Hepworth will be afforded the funds to commission a thorough-going survey of how some 50,000 complainants think the PCC should be reformed. The PCC refused to collaborate when MediaWise sought to do this back in 2004, preferring instead to issue self-serving statistics suggesting that the majority were happy with the PCC (though they were only asked if the PCC had complied with its own procedures).
And this brings us to the real question. Why is it “the right time for a fresh and independent look” as Ms Hepworth puts it? Is it because the burgeoning scandals of press malpractice in recent years make such a review inevitable? Is it because the press fear a backlash from politicians whose own unethical antics have so recently been exposed to public scrutiny? Or is it perhaps because, year on year, the number of complaints the PCC is struggling to deal with is increasing in inverse proportion to falling newspaper revenues?
Who knows, the PCC may end up calling on the public to support its reform agenda if its current paymasters are reluctant to foot the bill.
Director, MediaWise, and Senior Lecturer in Journalism at UWE.
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