This is the second of a two part review of the PCC’s response to the governance review. You can read the first part here.
Most of what the PCC does goes unreported in newspapers. But surely if they considered that the governance review had led to a stronger PCC, more able to represent its readers (or constrain its newspapers) they might have informed their readers? Instead, no newspaper carried a single word on the PCC’s final document.
The press’ disinterest in the governance review just might be because the governance review will lead to little significant change. For the following reasons, the governance review was a missed opportunity.
1. Clarity of purpose
The clarity of purpose section is well-worded and largely clear. However, it is fundamentally weakened by misleading language. For example, it asserts that “the PCC can enforce a range of sanctions”. This is simply untrue. Misleading prospective complainants in this way is deeply unfortunate.
The way in which the PCC will demonstrate its effectiveness will basically remain unchanged. Its complaints survey produces basically the same results each year – on a very small number of responses – with the vast majority satisfied by the PCC – although the wider system does not form part of the survey.
The complication over the PCC’s statistics may improve – but the response to the governance review is not a good starting point. It says that it will publish all cases where there is a breach of the code. So presumably all those (or only some?) which are not, will not be recorded. So the public will not be able to judge people who bring vexatious, repetitive complaints or whether some newspapers are unfairly targeted by campaigners.
The PCC also asserts that its sanctions must be better understood despite it only having one real sanction – requesting an adjudication – and no legal mechanism to enforce it. If it does admonish editors and publish this, it is to be welcome. But surely it is odd that the PCC is only committed to providing ‘examples’ of this rather than a complete list.
The PCC also rejects that any claimant should be able to make an oral case to the commission. On this point, it may be that the PCC is right – that most members of the public are better represented (and more cost effectively) in written form, with the assistance of the commission secretariat. However, the PCC finds:
“The current system allows for complainants and papers to set down their positions before being examined by the Commission. There is no need for lawyers to advocate on a complainant’s behalf”
And this statement clearly side-steps the fact that newspapers have their submissions written by lawyers – so the process is even harder for members of the public.
This is the strongest section of the document. Essentially, the PCC is operationally independent of the industry. However, the governance review did not find a case for barring working editors from the commission, or involving senior journalists on the PCC. As long as complainants dislike the PCC’s decisions, the role of working editors will continue to provoke suggestions that the PCC lacks independence.
In contrast, this is probably the weakest section of the document. It doesn’t even codify the PCC’s existing commitments, let alone push it towards reaching the standards that the press expect of others.
The PCC chairman has previously committed the PCC to act in the spirit of the freedom of information legislation. Given that it has failed to do this when asked, the only conclusion from the document can be that the PCC has no wish to make information freely available except on its own terms. Even the protocol which it says it has developed is not obviously publicly available.
The biggest problem with the changes to the PCC’s accountability is the continued unwillingness of the PCC to allow a right of appeal to its decisions. It believes this on the basis that a smaller number of people should not be allowed to overturn the decision of a larger number. This is an odd principle which is not applied elsewhere (appeal court judges can overturn a jury, judges can kick out an MP elected by 80,000). But the intransigence means that when the PCC is inaccurate, the law is the only course of action for a complainant – which weakens self-regulation.
By side-stepping big issues on sanctions, freedom of information and appeals the governance review outcomes ensure that the PCC will not be a significantly different place – and the newspapers that it covers presumably believe this to be the case. So on the big issues – whether high profile defamation cases or serious breaches of personal privacy – the experience for the public and the complainant will be little different.