The Press Complaints Commission: dealing with individuals or dealing with journalism?

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”.

This issues around this question of approach have been highlighted in a recent case involving The Sun. As Richard Osley described the case:

An unnamed woman from Camden rapped The Sun for it’s use of ‘gender bender’, the pretty thoughtless shorthand slang used to describe transexusals and transvestites. The full details of the complaint are not published but a case summary reads as follows:

COMPLAINT: A woman complained to the Press Complaints Commission through Liz Willows of the Camden LGBT Forum that the newspaper had raised a breach of Clause 12 (Discrimination) in referring to her as a “gender bender” in the text and headline of an article originally published in 2008 but still hosted on its website.

RESOLUTION: The complaint was resolved when the newspaper wrote to the complainant accepting her concern about the language used and removed the article from its website.

DATE: 25/5/2010

So The Sun has noted concerns over the use of ‘Gender Bender’. Does that mean they are reviewing the appearance of the word in other stories on its website. Boy George is described as a ‘chart-topping gender bender’, actor David Tennant apparently once played a ‘gender bender barmaid called Davinia’ and a murderer learned about his ‘gender bender grandad‘ at the age of seven.

As Richard points out there is an oddity here: if The Sun thought it right to change its website in one case, why not in the others? The PCC’s perspective when I asked them this is to say that, “The cases cited in the blog all predate the resolution of the complaint from Ms Willows (and two of them do not concern transsexuals at all).”

Even granting the point in brackets, it’s an explanation that leaves me rather uneasy. After all, those other stories are still on the website and old stories on newspaper websites carry on picking up readership for a very long time. The date of original publication mattered much more when newspapers became tomorrow’s chip paper and only a few ventured to libraries to look up old copies. On the internet old stories are much newer than the used to be.

More positively the PCC also said, “We do seek to use rulings to promote future good practice and a set of standards to which newspaper and magazines should adhere going forward”. But it strikes me that in plenty of industries the response to an ruling such as this would be a much more comprehensive attempt to change existing copy. Imagine if a financial regulator ruled that an insurance firm had been misleading in a leaflet; would old copies of the leaflet be left online unchanged?

It will be interesting to see what the review of the code the PCC enforces finally produces later this year – and how many of the proposals which various bloggers grouped to together to make get through.

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