Home > Uncategorized > The PCC: The media’s very own ASBO

The PCC: The media’s very own ASBO

Considering today’s multi-limbed, multi-platform and dispersed media, and after Richard Desmond’s decision to jump ship, is it not time to reassess the PCC?
Media ASBO


The PCC has had another tooth pulled out of its increasingly gummy bite as Richard Desmond hauls Express Newspapers out of the “self-regulating” pact.  But Desmond’s decision would not be tenable if an upheld PCC complaint was anything more than a media ASBO.

The similarities are uncanny:

1. Public disgracing of guilty party

2. No tangible legal ramifications

3. The bite is often a bit toothless (parliamentary report’s words, not mine!)

The PCC’s own website says:

If the Commission concludes that the Code has been breached (and the breach has not – or cannot – be remedied) it will uphold your complaint in a public ruling. The newspaper or magazine is obliged to publish the critical ruling in full and with due prominence. This is a serious outcome for any editor and puts down a marker for future press behaviour.

In other words the PCC is a parent with no punishments up its sleeve, except for a honed ability to portray disappointment.  Once untagged, the anti-social behaviour is free to continue with little more than a “don’t do it again” from the authorities.

The alternative of course would be to make the PCC a stepping stone to legal consequences, much like the ASBO became.  This would be a controversial, and I would argue, undesirable change.  We should be glad that the press is one step ahead of censorship, even if it is at the cost of a bit of anti-social reporting. 

Desmond’s decision is most likely due to the freedom of the unchecked and burgeoning alternative media.  When WikiLeaks is able to print reams of confidential material and when internet forums are free to discuss the details of superinjunctions without punishment, there is understandably a sense from the mainstream press that rules and regulations are dated and defunct.

Before this crisis even arrived, John Simpson summed up the PCC’s failings with a remarkable sense of foresight:

The newspapers, suspicious of anything which might be used to control them, wrangled over the concept for years, and it was not until 1953 that the Press Council began its work.  For many years the Council was an adequate, if not particularly energetic, defender of the rights of the ordinary citizen against the power of the press, but by the 1980s, and the arrival in force of the Murdoch empire, whatever teeth it had were thoroughly worn down.  By the turn of the century it seemed to direct its chief energy at those who pointed this out.

(Unreliable Sources pg 406)

Signs that the PCC is changing are certainly being planted, as Brian Cathcart suggests for The Free Speech Blog, but he notes that there is a certain amount of being seen to be changed going on.

Writing to me he also added:

Putting down a marker, as the PCC puts it, would be fine if anyone noticed or remembered the markers, but they don’t. I see no evidence that PCC rulings really influence press behaviour, especially in moments when urgency and competition are at work.

This problem of acting in hindsight with toothless and short-lived firmness is exacerbated by today’s more punctual, immediate, technological and often unconsidered breaking news culture.  The justified censorship by the Ministry of Information during World War II was challenging enough, even when it often had a whole day to sift through copy.  This undertaking would be unthinkable today.  Therefore the PCC can never and, most would argue, should never be able to act before material is published.  The only hope is that the PCC can reassess its code of practice and symbolically renew the vows of the media’s polygamous relationship in order to imbue a higher sense of responisibility from editors.

Editors and proprietors should be encouraged to hold strong together in mutual interest, like they have done in writing to the government on the issue of media plurality in the News Corporation/BSkyB case.

This sense of reasonable responsibility must be maintained in the mainstream if there is any hope of the outskirts of the media being kept in check.  Desmond’s decision to leave, although understandable given the media’s current climate, has thrown this task into jeopardy.

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