Media & PR

What to make of Baroness Buscombe’s speech as chair of the PCC?

“Let me make sure you know exactly who I am and what I am going to do at the PCC” – so said Baroness Buscombe, the new chair of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), at the annual conference of the Society of Editors.

Having read her speech in full, I fear I do know what she is going to do at the PCC – and that I’m not going to like it.

It’s a curious speech in several ways. She started off by recounting in some detail her Conservative Party roots. Leading off with the fact that she’s a Conservative, added to the jibes at Labour and the silence about other parties (even though her reference to civil liberties gave an obvious opportunity to mention the Liberal Democrats, for example), leaves an obvious question about what her motives were. I’m sure she’s a smart person and can’t have been unaware that the message many people will take from her speech is, “I’m a Conservative”. Is that really the right message for the chair of the PCC – which has to deal with complaints about political stories all in an equitable manner – to send? Is it the best way to reassure the public about how self-regulation will work on her watch?

There were also some rather astringent comments about Google and news aggregators:

“Together the press, all commercial broadcasters, film, book publishing and music industries must now work together to find a new business model with the Search Engines. The latter, the aggregators, think it is ok to enjoy the use of all your valuable intellectual property and ad revenues for little or no return.”

Whilst the chair of the PCC doesn’t need to be a technical aspect, I’m disappointed that she should make such an obviously wrong comment. If you look at many news aggregators they most certainly do not “use all of your valuable intellectual property”. Instead they take only the headline (and sometimes a following sentence or two) from a story and then link through to the original source. They are driving traffic to newspaper sites, not stealing “all your valuable intellectual property” from them.

It is as if the message was a comforting nod towards newspaper editors that she is on their side: she doesn’t like Google and she’d get on with any future Conservative government (so helping head off any moves for statutory regulation). That may be nice for them to hear – but choosing to stress her Conservative roots and her antipathy to search engines and aggregators is hardly taking the line of putting the public’s interests first.

Somewhat oddly, although she praised the media’s assault on MPs over expenses, when it came to her own chamber – the House of Lords – media criticism was not welcomed by her, for she asked, “Is it really in anyone’s interests for the media to be party to the undermining of our Second Chamber…?”

What was missing in her speech was an answer to the scale of the mistrust which engulfs journalism in this country. The latest MORI annual reputation survey puts journalists as the second least trusted profession in the country. Yet reading her defence of the current system of self-regulation and how it works you could be forgiven for thinking that journalism is one of the most trusted professions rather than scrambling to avoid the wooden spoon at the other end of the table.

In fairness, we did get six sentences about review governance structures and not being complacent. But for a profession so little trusted, simply slipping in the comment “I cannot ignore the strength of feeling that ranges from indignation to rage that exists among some of my colleagues in Westminster. So my priority is to do all I can to reassure politicians, opinion formers and – most importantly of all – the public that we are robust enough and responsible enough to be left alone” is not nearly enough.

Rather than get a plan to match the scale of the public distrust of journalism, we got a lengthy exposition of Baroness Buscombe’s Conservative Party roots. At best, that’s a serious misjudgement. At worst, it’ll let the public and journalism down.

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