Lib Dem Voice

Reform of Press Complaints Commission to be debated at conference

The future of the Press Complaints Commission is up for debate at the party’s autumn conference in Liverpool. A motion from Truro & Falmouth echoes many of the criticisms made of the PCC by the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in its recent report. The motion calls for a fully independent regulator to take the place of the current structure which is heavily staffed by people holding current senior newspaper roles.

The motion also supports a shift in the PCC’s role from handling individual complaints towards upholding and improving press standards more generally. That’s a question I wrote about in June,

A common thread running through the Press Complaints Commission’s defence of its work is that it has been primarily created to deal with individual complaints, rather than being a regulator whose role is to improve the press overall. That’s why, for example, the PCC emphasises the proportion of complaints made to it which are concluded with the complainant happy with the outcome rather than, for example, focusing on how widespread certain practices are and whether they are increasing or decreasing.

To give an example: if a blogger were to complain to the PCC about a newspaper taking their work and reusing it without credit, the PCC looks at just the individual case; even if it finds in favour of the blogger it doesn’t (except in exceptional cases) look at how widespread the problem is or attempt to track the frequency of the problem over time.

In defending this approach the PCC usually says that, first, these are the rules the industry has decided for it and, second, that its public opinion research shows there is very little public appetite for it to become a more general regulator (though others have a different take on public opinion).

It is a very different approach from that taken in other spheres. Imagine if, for example, the response of the industry regulator to cases of dodgy door to door sales by electricity companies had been, “We will deal with any individual complaints about specific sales people, but if there’s an overall problem with this in the industry that’s a matter for someone else”.

As you may guess from my example, I’m in favour of a greater emphasis on raising press standards more generally – and smart journalists should be too, because lack of trust in the press is one of the great problems newspapers face in trying to persuade people to pay for their output rather than taking free news from elsewhere.

The debate will be on the Sunday morning (19th September) of conference. The full text of the motion is below and we’ll be running a guest post from the PCC on it tomorrow:

Conference reaffirms its belief in the freedom of the British press and the valuable role it can play in holding people, politicians and businesses, to account.

However, conference believes that the freedom of the press should be exercised with greater responsibility and higher standards; and that this responsibility should respect not only the subject of an article but also the readership, who rely on the press to provide them with the facts of current events.

Conference notes a report by the Commons Culture Media and Sport select committee, published in February this year, that the Press Complaints Commission is widely viewed as ‘lacking credibility and authority’ among the public.

Conference further notes that:
a) Of the 17 members of the PCC, seven are serving editors or editorial directors.
b) A clear conflict of interest arises if a complaint is made against a publication whose editor is a PCC member, particularly if that editor is the PCC chair, as in 2008–09.
c) The PCC received more than 37,000 complaints from members of the public in 2009 – a sevenfold rise on the previous year.

Conference believes that for the Press to retain the confidence of the public, it is vital to have an effective and independent regulator that can deal robustly with any breaches of its own Code of Conduct.

Conference asserts that such a regulator should be entirely independent of serving editors, and should have the power to take disciplinary action, including financial penalties, against editors who breach the Code.

Conference affirms its support for a free and independent Press and believes that a stronger, more independent PCC will encourage better standards in the Press and help to protect both the public from unwarranted media intrusion, and the Press itself from a potential privacy law which could restrict Press freedom.

Conference therefore calls on the government to:
1. Make a clear commitment to reforming the PCC to make it independent of serving editors and give it more powers to take disciplinary action against editors whose publications breach the code.
2. Support the recommendation by the CMS select committee that the PCC should be renamed the Press Complaints and Standards Commission, and appoint a deputy director for standards.
3. Affirm their opposition to a privacy law that would restrict press freedom in Britain.

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