An interesting and possibly significant story about press regulation didn’t get a lot of cover this week. A pity – as this particular decision could have far more impact on the lives of ordinary folk in the medium to long-term than much of the tittle-tattle often retailed by the press.
But then, for all its bravery when it comes to exposing anything and everything ever-so-slightly off in the lives of ordinary people, the British press is altogether more reticent when it comes to its own.
Anyway, this the news that the Northern and Shell group, which includes the Express, the Star and OK! Magazine are to withhold payments to the Press Standards Board of Finance: or, in plain English, they’ve opted out of the Press Complaints Commission.
PCC has some merit
Big deal! I hear you say. THAT toothless body! And I’d have to agree with you more than a little on that. I have now made four, possibly five, complaints about various national papers and some seriously misleading and inaccurate reporting of transgender issues over the last few months – and as of today, my sense is that the PCC is far too cosy: far too prepared to excuse – even to go actively looking for excuses – for bad behaviour by its members.
Still, it is not wholly without merit. I don’t believe it to be the last bastion of fairness: all that stands between the general public and ultimate press armageddon. Yet it probably has some moderating effect: and, more importantly, it starts from the position that there can be such a thing as a code of conduct that is separate from and different to the law.
In talking to the PCC, I was initially horrified to learn that they had no remit to deal with general racist or sexist headlines. But then, why should they? A headline that incited race hatred would be subject to the relevant law – and punished accordingly. So yes: let’s stand up for standards.
The pcc is also a good example of that British tradition of preferring industries to regulate themselves. Sure: that always creates a tendency toward cosiness…the lads looking after the lads. The alternative? State bodies, ultimately reporting to some horrendous politician setting rules and guidelines. Would we really like Jack Straw or Theresa May directly intervening in respect of what our newspapers contain? No way!
So the pcc has performed two functions. Its kept politics and the state out of media regulation: and its possibly made our press just a tiny bit less bad.
Northern and Star self-regulation
Which brings us to the decision by Richard Desmond, publisher to the papers in question. As the article cited above makes clear, absent an official statement, sources close to the group said: “They feel they can operate the principles of self-regulation themselves and don’t feel they need to do that by being a member of the PCC. They employ lawyers to check the facts on stories and will continue to do that.”
Yippee! Is this a workable alternative?
Let’s pass, for a moment, the issue that lawyers aren’t there to “check facts”.
For starters, there is the point, above, that the pcc is about more than the law. Its about standards and I’d say that the decision to opt out is a statement in deed if not in word, that the Northern asnd Star group doesn’t much believe in such things. Basically, the bare minimum of law is what its about.
Express Newspapers – a shameful track record
Perhaps their record is so exemplary, they don’t need the pcc. Er, no. In making complaints over the last few months, the two papers most persistently eager to publish vile and inflammatory transphobic material appear, in my personal experience, to be the Express and the Star. They don’t quite cross the line into unlawfulness: but they skate close, suggesting something rather nasty about the mindset of their staffers, their readership, or both.
(OK: the pcc didn’t do a grand job of bringing them to book – but now there isn’t even that check on them).
According to the pcc themselves, in the last year “Of 775 cases with merit (individual cases which raised a possible breach of the Code) in 2010; 31 concerned Northern and Shell publications.” (4%)
Meanwhile, Roy Greenslade has been doing some sleuthing. He reckons that of late, Express Newspapers (the Express and Star) have paid out more in libel damages than any other newspaper group.
So either they aren’t taking the advice of their diligent fact-checking lawyers – or the lawyers aren’t all that good.
This move spells bad news for the press in the UK – and for the public likely in future to be on the receiving end.
PCC – the ice breaks
There are likely, however, to be longer-term consequences. One “sad” consequence is that papers such as the Express and Star have been able, when defending libel actions, to claim that as members of the pcc, they adhere to certain standards. This helps their defence. Of, dear: they won’t have that any more – and so they may be more likely to lose libel actions. Ooops!
But what of press regulation in general? Of the pcc? At present it looks like all the rest of the press is clinging more fiercely than ever to the pcc. Because one more major resignation would probably bring on what almost all fear with a vengeance – a final determination by by government to put in place statutory regulation.
In other words, it’s a mixed bag as far as consequences. On the one hand, its bad news that papers as vulgar, as careless as the Express and Star should feel they don’t need to sign up to general media standards. On the other hand, their action may in time recoil badly on them – and may also start to unfreeze the logjam that currently exists over legislation.
An exciting story. Pity no-one in the press seems to think it worth reporting.